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ACT score gap remains for whites, blacks

Officials ask: Why are whites outperforming black students

Sept. 7, 2010

ACT test scores dropped slightly in four out of five North Shore public high schools this year, but even with the decline, most remained comfortably above both the state and national average composite scores.

When the results are examined based on race, however, black students continue to lag behind their white counterparts, even at the North Shore high schools, which are known for their high levels of academic achievement.

In four of the five high schools, scores for black students fall well below the state composite average of 22.1.

Although the number of black students taking the test was small, the achievement gap is consistent, even over a period of years.

"This is the No. 1 educational issue in metro Milwaukee," said Brown Deer High School Principal Jim Piatt. "There is nothing else that is even close."

Brown Deer High School for the first time had a majority of black students taking the ACT exam, 43 black students to 42 white students. Black students scored a composite of 18.7 vs. the white students' composite of 23.4.

The state composite score for black students is 16, while the national score is 16.9. The state composite for white students is 23, while the national score is 16.9.

"No other suburban school district has the majority of kids taking the test being African-American," Piatt said. "The challenge is to raise their scores aggressively. We are moving toward 20, which is better than hovering around 16."

Experience should be equal

The achievement gap confounds officials in the high-performing Mequon-Thiensville School District. Eleven black students at Homestead High School took the exam and scored 23.6, which is above the state composite of 22.1, but below the 26.1 composite score for white students.

The overall composite score at Homestead, 25.9, was one of the highest in the state.

Mequon-Thiensville District Administrator Demond Means is far from satisfied with the scores.

"In my opinion, there is still a gap," said Means, who is African-American. "The majority of kids of color live in our district. It shouldn't make a difference where you live. In my view, all kids should have the same experience."

Means pointed out that throughout the five school districts in the North Shore, most students coming from outside the districts, either via the Chapter 220 program or Open Enrollment, enter the schools at an early age.

"There is another element in play, but I am not sure what the root cause is," he said. "If we could identify and commit to a schoolwide action that would improve our scores, I think our composite scores could be 29."

Whitefish Bay Principal Bill Henkle said eliminating the achievement gap continues to elude suburban high schools.

"Over the last five years, our highest black composite score was 20," he said. "Despite all our strengths and successes, over the 12 years I have been here, we haven't made any progress in that area. If we can solve that piece, it is likely that we bring everyone else along, too."

Henkle addressed his faculty last week and asked them to help identify cultural elements that could have an impact on black students' learning.

"The educational system as we know it is a white system, designed by white people for white students," Henkle said.

No-homework policy dropped

At Brown Deer, where there is pressure from the community to once again bring district scores more in line with the other North Shore schools, Piatt outlined a number of steps being taken to raise scores.

The most critical step, he said, was the 2008 dissolution of a 32-year-old policy that decreed no homework for students until seventh grade. Elementary students now have homework, a step toward promoting the discipline and self awareness that is part of the learning process, he said.

There also have to be expectations for achievement. The district has become more diverse in recent years.

"Fifteen years ago most of the high school students were coming from Brown Deer Middle School or from stable parochial schools," he said, estimating 90 percent of students fell into those categories.

"Now 75 percent of them are from those schools and the rest come from other places," Piatt said. "The base of kids coming from other places is more diverse and their instruction has been more diverse."

Moving into the high school, or any high school on the North Shore, doesn't guarantee success in and of itself. Brown Deer decided to hold summer school for elementary and high school students, a move that could improve not only ACT scores but other standardized test scores as well.

This summer 200 elementary and 130 high school students attended summer school, taking remedial classes to bring them to grade level.

"We are doing business differently," Piatt said.

As a short term step, the district is also offering ACT test preparation beginning in December.

Tough courses help with ACT

At Nicolet High School, District Administrator Rick Monroe said the most successful way to raise college admission test results is to encourage students to take the most rigorous courses they can manage. When students cannot take the more difficult course, the district is prepared to help and encourage them.

A new academic support center will open this fall. Students can go there during any free period to get help in any subject matter from teachers and staff.

The district will also offer a remedial reading class for the first time. The program has been shown to raise reading by several grade levels in a year, Monroe said.

"We noticed we had students coming in below the level where they should be," Monroe said. "You can't assume people will improve just because they are in high school."

Means is extremely concerned about the continuing gap in black achievement and says area administrators, who are already working together as a part of group on cultural equity in schools, need to focus on this issue.

"It should be a moral imperative for us if we continue to meet as a group to work on finding the root causes for the gap," Means said. "I would challenge my counterparts in the North Shore to work together on that."

At A Glance

Composite ACT scores for the North Shore High Schools for 2010 and 2009

Schools 2010 2009
Brown Deer 21.0 21.2
Homestead 25.9 25.3
Nicolet 24.4 25.2
Shorewood 24.9 25.9
Whitefish Bay 25.7 26.2
state 22 22.2
national 21 21.1

Source: State Department of Public Instruction

Minority Gap

Composite scores for black and white students as measured by the ACT for the Class of 2010; 2009 scores in parenthesis.

Schools Blacks Whites
Brown Deer 18.7 (19.4) 23.4 (22.7)
Homestead 23.6 (22.1) 26.1 (25.3)
Nicolet 19.2 (20.6) 25.7 (26.0)
Whitefish Bay 18.7 (19.3) 26.4 (26.5)
Shorewood 18.9 (19.0) 25.5 (27.0)
State 16 (16.8) 23 (22.9)
National 16.9 (16.9) 22.3 (22.2)

Source: State Department of Public Instruction

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