If you are confused by words like achievement gap, educational achievement gap and racial achievement gap, you aren’t alone. The achievement gap refers to dramatically lower standardized test scores of nonwhite students. Poor test scores lead to failure in high school, teenage pregnancy, unemployment and incarceration. Wisconsin has the highest racial achievement gap in the United States.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (July 14, 2009) breaks the problem down. Fourth and eighth grade students in the U.S. are administered the National Assessment of Academic Progress. Math and reading abilities, two areas that are critical to academic success, are measured. In Wisconsin, nonwhite students score 45 points lower than white students on the 500 point test, compared to the 31 point difference in the rest of the country.
Poor test scores translate to lower graduation rates. The overall graduation rate in Wisconsin rose to 87.5 percent in 2012 while black and Native American graduation hovers at 55 percent. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 9, 2013)
A high school diploma is the ticket to almost any employment and all higher education. Wisconsin’s low nonwhite graduation rates make creating stable lives, stable families and stable communities a monumental task.
My first-hand experience with the achievement gap came in raising a Native American daughter and grandson. Despite committed participation in my daughter’s education she fell behind early and never caught up. She didn’t graduate from high school and became a teenage mother. Through perseverance she earned a GED and a Bachelors Degree in Education. She runs a Native youth center where she shows the children a path to life success through education.
We experienced school celebrations such as Settlement Days and Colonial Days without regard to what was happening to Native people or African American slaves during that time in history. White teachers and administrators saw nonwhite students as incapable or unmotivated and changed expectations and interactions. Thoughtful and dedicated teachers were hindered by a curriculum rooted in ignorance and insensitivity.
In the time between my daughter’s education and my grandson’s nonwhite graduation rates haven’t improved despite much discussion. Alternative programs for struggling students involve an intensive commitment by educated parents. In middle school my grandson was labeled as a low achiever and problem child. He was sent to an online program with daily supervision but no actual teaching. This worked well for him because he was highly motivated and had an educated mother and grandmother to help him when he didn’t understand an assignment. He graduated from high school in three years and went on to college. Without our help I doubt he would have been able to finish.
Improving education for nonwhite students isn’t impossible. Parental involvement is known to help all students. Looking at barriers to participation like economic struggles, parent’s lack of education, prejudice and ignorance will help all struggling students.
Small class size in elementary school also helps all students. This is difficult to do for many school districts which are financially strapped. Our school district fills this gap with a massive volunteer program. Parents, retirees, high school students and others read with students, and help with schoolwork during and after school.
I lived through the struggles of my daughter and grandson and saw them succeed. Now I help other families and students and look for ways to improve the system for all students.