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School District Confronts Racial Achievement Gap


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By Danny Rose, Staff Writer

Testing Data--Science

What is the Achievement Gap?

The “Achievement Gap” refers to a difference in educational performance between white and underprivileged groups. For many years, it has been identified as a problem in school districts nationwide. The gap can be measured by comparing grades, standardized tests, and other measures of academic achievement.

In 2001, former President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, hoping to boost standards in public education. According to the National Governors Association, The goal of the act was to set higher standards for all students by establishing measurable goals of improvement. The act would give local school districts more money and more flexibility to use resources where they are most needed. The NCLB Act holds the schools responsible for making sure that kids are learning.

The act also requires states to develop standardized tests that are used to compare scores to other schools and see where help is needed.

The NCLB act is crucial in narrowing the achievement gap because it requires states to set the same bar for underprivileged students, such as students that come from economically disadvantaged families, have disabilities, are limited in English proficiency or are from minority groups.

This means that  if a group constantly fails to meet the performance standards set by the state, the district must provide additional services to those failing students. As the National Governors Association put it, “schools are now only considered successful if they close the achievement gap.”

What Causes the Achievement Gap?

There are a number of theories as to why a gap exists. Scholars who study academic achievement have identified the role of parents, culture, student attitudes, teacher attitudes, and even early childhood education. In Beachwood, one possible explanation for those students new to the district is that they moved from a district with lower expectations. Because Beachwood has such a rigorous curriculum, transfer students often find themselves struggling in classes they were passing with ease at their old districts. This effect is more visible in honors and AP classes.

According to BHS Principal Robert Hardis, there is another, more subtle force at work creating a difference in achievement: institutionalized racism.

Institutionalized racism can be explained as “a form of racism which is structured into political and social institutions. It occurs when  institutions, including corporations, governments and universities, discriminate either deliberately or indirectly, against certain groups of people. For example, race-based discrimination in housing, education, employment and health are forms of institutional racism.” In other words, it’s the actions made by people in power that are based on subconsciously racist assumptions.

To give a hypothetical example, imagine two students.  Student A is white and student B is black. Both students take one AP class and are in the process of selecting classes for their next year. When student A (the white student) is asked if he is currently in any AP classes, the tone of voice in which the question is asked might be a “confirming a fact” tone, like “you take AP classes, right?” Now student B goes in to select his classes, and when asked if he is any AP classes, there could be skepticism and question in the counselor’s voice. This subtle expression of attitude and expectations, which could happen in any school, whether it comes from a teacher, counselor, administrator, or even a parent, could have a tremendous impact on a student’s expectations for himself. It’s not done on purpose by any means, but small differences like that are noticed by students and can possibly make a person think that he or she is capable of less than others.

Biased test questions are a form of institutionalized racism as well. Some critics have pointed out that if the creators of the test are predominately white, white culture will be embedded in the questions,  giving white students an unfair advantage.

The Gap in Beachwood

Although a wealthy school district, Beachwood has been addressing the problem of its own ethnic achievement gap.  However, according to scores from OGT and OAT tests, Beachwood’s achievement gap is smaller than others across the state. According to the Ohio Department of Education, in the 2006-07 school year, the state average for black students at or above the proficient level in OGT reading was 73%. At BHS, 88.8% of the black students were at or above the proficient level. In OGT math, the state average was 56.4% of black students were at or above the proficiency level, at BHS, 80% of the black students scored at or above the proficient level.

Difference in racial disparities can be seen as early as kindergarten, and are present all the way through high school. In 2009, 82% of the total white students passed the 3rd grade reading OAA, while 58% of the total black students passed. 88% of Asian students passed as well.

The disparities in achievement would appear to be greatest at the high school level, “because there are more visible indicators” explained Superintendent Richard Markwardt. Because of the AP and honors classes in high school, as well as more of a variety of classes, the level of tracking makes the achievement gap seem more pronounced.

Differences in racial disparities can also be seen on the scores of criterion-referenced tests. The difference in the number of minority students enrolled in AP and honors classes is another marker used to study ethnic achievement. For example, in the 2009-10 school year, there were 32 Caucasian students in AP American Gov, and there were 0 African American students. In AP American History, there are 36 Caucasian students, with only 4 African Americans. In AP Statistics, there were 30 Caucasian students, and 2 African Americans. It is from looking at numbers like these that the district knows that it has a problem.

What is Beachwood Doing?

Social Studies teacher Greg Deegan helped found the Differential Achievement Committee, which has been working since 2003 to close the gap. Since the formation of this committee, improvements have been seen. “Some are anecdotal, and some are data driven, OGT passing rates have improved, and GPA’s are going up,” said Deegan.

According to Deegan, an “atmosphere of mutual respect and openness” is the first step necessary to close the gap. Students will be more likely to approach a teacher for help when there is respect between them, which is a big leap to closing the gap. In this case, it’s not always determined by how the student engages the class, but how the teacher engages the student.

“We take into consideration all the different variables that effect a student’s achievement, such as level of instruction previously given (from previous years or districts), the quality of the educational program and the type of teaching the student receives” said Lauren Broderick, Director or Pupil Services in Beachwood.

The district also has a contract with the Pacific Educational Group, or PEG, a company whose mission is to address issues of educational inequality by providing individualized guidance to school districts to meet the needs of students with minority backgrounds. The group gives individualized and comprehensive support. PEG helps educators develop effective strategies for closing the achievement gaps in their districts. But PEG isn’t enough. “There’s no magic bullet solution,” said Broderick, “if the perfect solution was out there, we’d be using it.”

A reason is because so many places disparities can be seen. “they take on all different shapes” said Markwardt, explaining that there are important questions to ask, such as, “are they involved [in school activities]? Why/why not? What’s their GPA? Are they urged to take honors and AP classes?”

Although there may be no golden solution, test results show the gap in Beachwood has been closing over the past few years. In the 2006-07 school year, 79.6% of black students were proficient in OGT reading, in 2007-08 that percent increased to 83.6%, and in 2008-09 the percent rose to 88.8% proficient. African Americans who have been in the district for a few years tend to perform significantly better than the recent transfers, which suggests that the efforts made in the district have achieved results, setting Beachwood on the right track.

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