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Students selected to look at national achievement gap

By William Inman Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday October 03, 2000

Forgive ninth-grader Craig Long for having to have his mother bring him up to speed on the academic achievement gap issue. He stays pretty busy in his advanced placement classes, especially geometry, he said. 

Long, fellow freshman Bradley Johnson, sophomores Nathan Simmons and Mercedes Ruiz, and junior Sarah Rivera are making a trip to Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for a three-day national conference beginning Oct. 4 on the “academic achievement gap,” a conference where minority students from 15 high schools across the nation will look at why minority students – even those coming from affluent homes – do less well academically than their white and Asian counterparts. 

The five students were chosen for their strong GPA’s, their high test scores, their participation in numerous extracurricular activities and because they are minorities.  

These high achievers make up a minority within the minority, because they have achieved a high level of academic success, which others have not. 

The five students will represent Berkeley High School at the national conference in Ohio held by The National Task Force on Minority Achievement. 

As part of their participation, the students will shadow other high achieving, black and Latino students at Cleveland Heights High School and Shaker Heights High School in Cleveland. 

But the most important information is what the students already know: How they have achieved academic success while many of their peers have not. They will be asked to share that information. 

“The focus is supporting them and creating a culture of high achievement,” said School Board Director Shirley Issel. “Then they can teach us what they’ve learned.” 

The students will give a report to the school board at its Oct. 14 meeting, and share their experiences with their peers and with a panel of experts at the conference. 

Berkeley Unified is one of 15 districts that participates in the National Task Force on Minority Achievement, a task force that is studying the chronic shortage of African–American, Latino and Native American students who achieve at high levels academically. 

“It doesn’t make sense, common sense,” Issel said. “(The participating communities) have a very highly-educated, wealthy minority community, and the students are still underperforming their Asian and Caucasian counterparts.” 

There is a sharp divide between the wealth of the Caucasian community and Berkeley’s black and Latino communities which may be less substantial in the other communities represented at the conference, including Chapel Hill, N.C., Amherst, Mass., Evanston, Ill., and Madison, Wisc. 

At the conference the students will be looking at the premise in Christopher Jencks’ and Meredith Phillips’ book “The Black-White Test Score Gap,” which says that traditional explanations, such as racial segregation and inadequate funding of black schools, have not stood the test of time.  

They say that the average black student now attends a school in a district that spends as much per pupil as the average white child’s district, and class sizes in predominately black schools are the same in predominately white schools.  

But predominately white schools seem to attract more skilled teachers than black schools, they say, and the benefit that black students who attend predominately white schools receive from having better teachers seems to be “offset by the social costs (i.e., racism) of being in an overwhelmingly white environment,” they say. 

Once a taboo subject, discussion of the racial gap in test scores has gained steam among many black and Latino academics, like Dr. Ronald Ferguson – an African-American researcher at Harvard and keynote speaker at the conference – who says that teachers’ low expectations for black and Latino students hinder their performance. 

Researchers like Ferguson are trying to find places and cases – like Johnson, Long, Ruiz, Rivera, and Simmons – that buck the trend, and to learn from their success. 

Ferguson and others have written a comprehensive survey that the BUSD will administer to students in the 8th, 9th and 11th grade in hopes of identifying some of the causes for the gap.