Our Schools Are Handicapping Minority Children
As things stand now, the segment of New York's population that is our fastest-growing will also be the least prepared for the life and jobs of the 21st Century.
Members of racial and ethnic minority groups -- their ranks swelled by an influx of recent immigrants from Asia, South America and the Caribbean -- have accounted for virtually all the net growth in New York State's population over the last 15 years. This trend is even more pronounced in New York's public schools, where minorities comprised more than 43 percent of statewide enrollment during the 1995-96 school year. At current rates, non-white and Hispanic children – overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas – will be close to one-half of all pupils in New York State's schools within the next decade.
But year after year, tens of thousands of minority children in New York emerge from elementary school poorly grounded in reading – the first and most fundamental of the three R's. With weak reading skills, these students have virtually no chance of succeeding, much less excelling, in high school or college.
Our analysis of state reading test scores from 1990 through 1996 confirms the persistence in New York of two separate and unequal school systems – one serving mostly white pupils, the other mostly minorities. The two systems are separated not by laws of segregation, but by a large and growing literacy gap that has dangerous economic as well as social implications for the Empire State.
Facing up to failure
Under Commissioner Richard Mills, who was appointed by the Regents in late 1995, the state Education Department (SED) has been more forthright than ever in acknowledging the failures of the school system it oversees. Mills has dramatically boosted accountability by issuing "report cards" presenting test results and other performance indicators for every school in the state.
Just over 20 percent of the 214,000 third graders who took the Pupil Evaluation Program (PEP) test in reading in the spring of 1996 scored below the state's minimum standard, according to the department. In other words, "one in five could not read with comprehension even the easiest connected sentences and paragraphs," notes the Commissioner's report to the Governor and the Legislature.
Close scrutiny of test data suggests the problem is even worse than the Commissioner's report indicates. The statewide PEP test figures do not include more than 23,300 third-grade pupils who took the reading test but were classified as having "handicaps," including reading disabilities. When these pupils are counted, the number scoring below the minimum rises to 26 percent -- a failure rate of more than one in four.
Poor readers are concentrated in what the SED classifies as high-minority schools -- those whose enrollments are classified as more than 80 percent black, Hispanic, Asian or American Indian.
The state reading test data for 1996, the most recent year available, show the following:
Nearly half of the 53,133 third graders tested in high-minority public schools scored below the minimum level -- meaning they could not read even the simplest material.
More than 40 percent of the 42,644 sixth-grade pupils tested in high-minority public schools failed to meet the state's minimum reading standard for their grade.
Eighty percent of the sixth graders in high-minority schools could not read well enough on their own to fully comprehend a typical sixth-grade textbook. In one-fifth of the high-minority schools, ninety percent or more could not.
Only 29 percent of the third graders in high-minority public schools scored at or above the statewide grade-level median on the PEP test in reading. High-minority public schools fell even further behind the statewide curve in sixth grade, where only 27 percent of pupils scored at or above grade level.
Most disturbing of all, perhaps, is this grim fact: After the state Education Department began intensifying its efforts to identify and correct the problem, reading test scores in high-minority public schools actually declined.
The number of pupils reading above the minimum competency level in high-minority pupil schools dropped by six percentage points in Grades 3 and 6 between 1990 and 1996. During the same period, there was a sizeable increase in the number of high-minority schools in which more than half the pupils failed to reach minimum competency. The number scoring below the statewide median also increased in both third and sixth grades.
Under new state regulations effective in 1996-97, at least 90 percent of every school's students are supposed to meet or exceed minimum standards in certain grades. However, as of 1996, only a handful of high-minority public schools could meet this standard. Very few of these were located where the minority population is concentrated, in New York City.
Ending the excuses
Confronted with such discouraging statistics, educators will point out that pupils in high-minority schools consist predominantly of poor children from single-parent homes. An increasing number of pupils are recent immigrants whose families don't speak English. These children and their families also tend to move a lot – meaning pupil class assignments in many inner city schools are in a state of constant flux. In some districts, class assignments can never be settled at all.
These may be explanations (if only partial ones) for the manifest failure of high-minority schools. But they can no longer be allowed to serve as excuses. Poverty no doubt has something to do with the poor performance of these high-minority schools -- but the more important point is that poverty is a problem that cannot be solved unless our educational results improve. A child who has not been taught to read by the 3rd grade – and who still cannot read well by the 6th grade – has been burdened with a huge handicap on the climb out of poverty.
The good news is that the reading data show that these educational failures are not inevitable. They can be solved.
As we document in this report, public schools in various parts of the state are doing well, with minority student bodies in proportions similar to those in the schools that are failing. And non-public schools with high-minority enrollments consistently outperform high-minority public schools in reading performance – even though the non-publics spend much less per pupil. The percentage scoring above the minimum in New York's high-minority non-public schools is 19 points above the public school average in the 3rd grade and 11 points above the public school average in the sixth grade.
For the public schools, location seems to be a key factor in the performance of schools with concentrated minority enrollments. Nearly three-quarters of third and sixth graders in high-minority schools outside New York City scored above minimum competency. If New York City's schools could match the performance of high-minority public schools elsewhere in the state -- or of the high-minority non-public schools within the city's own borders – roughly 10,000 more children every year would leave third grade equipped with at least basic reading skills.
There is hope, as well, in a growing body of research at the national level that offers new insights into what practices in the teaching of reading work -- and what practices don't work. Whether this hope will be translated into concrete results depends in part upon whether the state Education Department takes advantage of this new research.
Fix what's broke
This study focuses on literacy as the foundation of all learning. Viewing high-minority public schools in New York from that perspective, one thing seems crystal clear: Whatever they are doing now, it has yet to make much of a difference.
The state's top-down approach to school improvement, featuring regulatory sanctions and special attention for the worst schools, has so far brought only isolated, marginal improvements.
One entire generation of students has gone through school since the publication of A Nation At Risk called our attention to the failures of our schools. It is time – indeed, it is past time – to deliver a wake-up call for a system which continues to teach too few of its students to read even with minimal proficiency.
The Public Policy Institute of New York State, Inc.
111 Washington Avenue, Suite 400 | Albany, New York 12210-2289 | 518-465-7511