Black Reading Skills: Reports Miss the Mark

Show Me the Numbers: Here's why standardized tests don't tell the whole story.

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(The Root) -- "What about to be seen as a person with a name, then POOF a statistic and to many a shame ... " Asa Fludd, an African-American 11th-grader, wrote this for an essay contest that I judged. I reprinted this statement in my second Breaking Barriers (pdf) report, recited it during at least 50 speeches and repeat it here to reinforce the point that behind every statistic, there is a human spirit -- a spirit that is as fragile as it is resilient.

The mission of Show Me the Numbers -- The Root's monthly series published in association with Howard University's Journal of Negro Education, of which I am editor-in-chief -- is to break down national data to dispel common myths and challenge conventional wisdom about education in black America. However, the articles are not only about examining the statistics on black education; they are also about how we use statistics. Do we use them to shame, criticize or pity black learners -- or to strengthen, support and empower them?

At the end of the summer, the journal will release a special issue on testing and assessment in the black community, co-edited by Donna Ford at Vanderbilt University and Janet Helms at Boston College. In the issue, my colleagues and I will examine issues of fairness and racial bias in achievement tests, which ubiquitously shape the experiences of millions of black children and adults -- more now than at any point in history.

In the U.S., black and Hispanic students carry the burden of scoring lower on essentially every known measure of achievement or aptitude than whites and Asians. These tests often serve as gatekeepers to specialized schools, gifted classes and elite colleges -- or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, as determinants of special education, grade repetition and emotional-support classes.

Some parents, who may have a low-scoring son or daughter, often recoil from any attempts to challenge the merits of tests and instead blame the schools for inadequately preparing their children. The schools respond by blaming the parents. When explaining the "achievement gap," test companies blame social inequities and cultural depravation (e.g., single-parent households and poverty). And the cyclical blame game continues, with solutions for black students' progress almost an afterthought.

For this entry in the series, we examine a national assessment of reading, as well as the finding that black people are less proficient in reading. What is behind black students' pervasively low reading scores, and are tests that have been designed by our nation's experts the best assessment of black reading skills? Read other articles in The Root's SMN series here.

Failing Black Students

When reporting on the achievement gap, the media have largely ignored the more complex issues regarding the merits of testing, such as bias and fairness, choosing instead to accept the tests at face value. To illustrate, let's examine how and why, over the last two years, many media outlets have been reporting that nearly 90 percent of black children from elementary school through high school graduation lack reading proficiency.

Late last year, researchers at Harvard released the report Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete? (pdf) which highlighted gaps between races within the U.S. as well as between the U.S. and 65 countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment. For one section of the report, the team of four white research scholars removed all minority participants from their analysis because they found it "worth inquiring as to whether differences between the United States and other countries are attributable to the substantial minority population within the United States."

The report inspired coverage from black media outlets, including BET.com, which published an article with this telling headline: "Report: Only 13 Percent of 2011 Black Graduates Proficient in Reading." The Harvard study found that less than half of white graduates were proficient in reading (40 percent), but this low percentage may matter little to those who consider white students to be the nation's benchmark.

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