Across ethnicities and economic status, girls outperform boys on English in standardized tests
Three of four African-American boys in California classrooms failed to meet reading and writing standards on the most recent round of testing, according to data obtained from the state Department of Education and analyzed by CALmatters.
More than half of black boys scored in the lowest category on the English portion of the test, trailing their female counterparts. The disparity reflects a stubbornly persistent gender gap in reading and writing scores that stretches across ethnic groups.
The data provide a unique glimpse of how gender interacts with race and class in mastery of basic reading, writing and listening skills tested on state exams. While California publishes separate figures on the performance of various ethnic and economic groups, it does not make public a more detailed breakdown of how boys and girls are performing within those groups. State officials say they do not sort the data that way because of complexity, cost and time constraints.
Unlike in math, where girls have caught up to boys in California and elsewhere, female students in general maintain a sizable lead over their male classmates in the language arts. While initiatives to encourage girls to learn math and science have received considerable publicity, the gender reading gap is viewed less as a problem warranting action.
“I wouldn’t put this in the same category of severity or concern as other achievement gaps,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher for the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. “But there needs to be greater awareness of this.”
The gap spans all grade levels. Boys in high school score better than those in grade school, but girls outperform them by consistent margins at every age. And a higher family income does not appear to even things out.
The gap is not unique to California. In states that administer the same standardized exam as California, girls outscore boys by similar margins. In international reading comprehension exams, girls best boys in nearly every country and at nearly every age.
The phenomenon is nevertheless worrisome because it may compound other educational disparities California has attempted to close for decades, without success.
“If boys don’t read as well as girls, and if that persists all the way through K-12, it means when you reach certain thresholds like college, it places the males at a disadvantage,” says Loveless. “The ability to read well has a lot to do with the ability to get into college and the ability to do well while you’re in college.”
What explains the poor scores? And why doesn’t the state provide more detailed data?
Certainly scores aren’t the only educational area in which black boys trail their peers. African-American boys are more likely to be suspended and drop out of school than other demographic groups, in California and elsewhere.
But the reading data is sobering. As early as fourth grade, for example, nearly 80 percent of black boys failed to meet state reading standards. Of all ethnic groups for which the state collects data, black boys trailed black girls by the widest margin.
“Part of this may be structural, in having texts that aren’t relevant to the experiences and legacy of African-American boys,” said Chris Chatmon, founding executive director of the African-American Male Achievement program at the Oakland Unified School District. “When a lot of the curriculum you have access to isn’t familiar, or doesn’t acknowledge your past or your present, you have a tendency not to be engaged with it or want to read it.”
While the state makes it relatively easy for parents to look up the test scores of African-Americans at local schools, the data is not broken down by gender. So it may be difficult to identify schools where black boys are performing well, as well as schools that are struggling.
“The state should report this data,” Ryan Smith, executive director of the education reform advocacy group Ed Trust-West, said via email. “One of the consistent things we find in our research is that schools and districts closing gaps for students of color tend to do more with data, not less.”
The data limitation is not unique to California—detail is lacking in many other states’ public-facing test results. A spokeswoman for the California Department of Education said producing more detailed data is under consideration, but “schools and districts already have the capacity to create student results by all kinds of cross-tabulations.”
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