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Education Gap Widens and No One Cares

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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    A report recently released by ACT, one of the two leading companies that produce college-entrance exams, indicated that the average scores of students taking the ACT test this past year declined. Further, the percentage of students meeting ACT’s benchmarks for college-readiness also declined to 22% of high school graduates who took the test.

    That news is bad, but worse still is the fact that the gap between Asians and whites on the one hand, and non-Asian minorities on the other, is widening.  African-Americans’ scores on the ACT declined, while Asian-American scores increased and white scores were unchanged. Less than one out of every thirty African-American students taking the test, which is largely administered to high school seniors bound for four-year colleges, met all ACT’s benchmarks for college readiness. Only one in ten Hispanic students were adjudged college-ready.

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     News from the College Board was also discouraging. The College Board oversees the SAT, which is the largest college entrance exam. Although performance on the SAT held steady for 2008 high school graduates overall, average scores among minority groups, other than Asians, were down by 6 to 8 points across the three exams. Whites and Asians score averages were over 300 points higher than African-American scores on the 2400-point test.

    The problem with the news about racial performance gaps is that it is no longer news. As with many horrendous subjects to which we are repeatedly exposed, we become inured to the bad news. Famously, the successful defense strategy in the Rodney King police abuse case was to show the jury the videotape of the police beating Mr. King many times. The horrendous beatings therefore lost their sting.

    Perhaps it is time to view our disastrous educational landscape with fresh eyes. Imagine that beginning tomorrow every baby born in the U.S. is randomly assigned to another one of that day’s birth mothers. A Native American child born on a reservation in Montana might end up with a single mother in New York or a main line couple from Philadelphia, whose baby went to Seattle, might receive twins born to a mother in Iowa.

    Consider what tomorrow’s cohort of babies and each day’s subsequent groups of babies might mean in terms of our schools ten years down the line. A private elementary school in California would likely be indistinguishable from a Chicago inner city grammar school, at least in terms of the faces of the children. Certainly, our true melted pot would provide researchers a wonderful laboratory to explore the relative effects of nature versus nurture, but regardless of their findings, we could expect a radical societal transformation.

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    Because no mother would know in advance which baby she would receive, all our expectant mothers and families would have a stake in insuring that each fetus got the best possible pre-natal care. These groups would likely lobby to make sure that hospitals and governmental assistance programs provided extra services to those most in need, high risk babies born to crack or alcohol addicted mothers, for example. Although our babies would never enter the world with precisely equal chances, every parent-to-be would have an enormous stake in trying to give every newborn the best start in life she could possibly have.

    Now let’s assume that we could channel that communal goodwill spirit into our schools today. Instead of the largely selfish approach that looks out for our own children but neglects other children, we substitute a sense that we all have a responsibility and interest to insure that each of our children succeeds. The first and most important step is for Americans to commit themselves to the education of all our children.

    We must view our educational gap not as something to run away from or ignore but as a giant hole that we all need to pitch in and fill.
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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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