Category Archives: Race and race relations

Spotlighting the Wrong Victims

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Black students comprise 39% of the public school student population in Henrico County but account for 80% of all the kids arrested for offenses committed in schools. That disparity, combined with the fact that black students are disproportionately suspended from Henrico schools, is something that some people find disturbing, according to the Sunday Times-Dispatch. Although the article does not explicitly describe the difference as an injustice, the headline entitled, “School data show racial disparity in Henrico,” certainly implies that it is. In the progressive/liberal worldview “disparities” between the races are ipso facto evidence of discrimination.

“If they don’t know they have a problem, they have their eyes closed,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, which has made an issue of the differing rate of school suspensions in Henrico. “The numbers don’t lie, and the suspension rates are disproportionate as it relates to African-Americans, and I think we see that the arrest rates are as well,” said Tyrone Nelson, a black supervisor from the Varina district.

There are two very big problems with the article. First, it provides no evidence whatsoever that black students are disciplined more harshly than whites for comparable offenses. That evidence may exist somewhere but the article doesn’t provide it. Second, the article follows the standard victimization narrative of troubled black  youths suffering from a system that is stacked against them. But it totally ignores the invisible victims of disorder in the schools — classmates, disproportionately black, whose educational experience is disrupted by the misbehavior. If we want to understand the “disparities” in educational achievement between the races, differences in school discipline is a factor worth exploring.

The incidence of disorderly behavior in schools is tightly correlated with the socio-economic characteristics of the student body. Families from “disadvantaged” backgrounds are more likely to suffer social disorders arising from economic insecurity, substance abuse, domestic violence and the lack of a biological father in the house. Youths raised in such an environment — especially adolescent males — are far more prone to disruptive and violent behavior at home, on the street and in school.

According to our trusty tool, the Virginia Department of Education  SOL Assessment Build-a-Table, 65% of all economically disadvantaged students in Henrico County are black. Insofar as kids who get in enough trouble at school to get suspended or arrested are economically disadvantaged, more than half the so-called racial disparity disappears. A more refined look at the data — I would point to the presence of biological fathers in the household as a better indicator of a family’s ability to impose social norms on rebellious adolescent males — could show that the disparity disappears entirely. Conceivably, a closer look will show no such thing. We won’t know until we do the research. What is reckless, irresponsible and inflammatory is to assume, as a default proposition, that any differences in suspension and arrest rates reflects discrimination by schools and law enforcement.

Under investigation from the hyper-politicized U.S. Justice Department for the “disparity” in school suspensions, Henrico County authorities have been making an effort to cut that disparity. As the Times-Dispatch notes:

In the 2012-2013 school year, the number of suspensions in Henrico County schools dropped to 7,604 from 9,165 the year before, a 17 percent reduction. But the share of suspensions going to black students remained stubbornly high, rising almost half a point to nearly 77 percent.

Unless we’re willing to attribute some kind of subtle racism or prejudice to Henrico County principals and teachers — many of whom are black themselves, especially in the schools where discipline problems are the greatest — the logical conclusion is that the rules and procedures for administering discipline isn’t the problem. The kids are the problem.

There is, in fact, an injustice in this story. The injustice just happens to be the precise opposite of what is commonly asserted. The real problem is that disruptive behavior in the classroom has a negative impact on teacher morale and makes it harder for well-behaving students to learn.

Source:  Virginia Department of Education

Click for more legible image

How prevalent is disruptive behavior in Henrico classrooms? According to the “Discipline, Crime and Violence Annual Report, 2012-2013,” we know that discipline issues are a big problem. Henrico County logged more than 7,200 disciplinary offenses during the 2012-2013 school year. Highlights are shown at left.

These are just the offenses that were recorded for the record. It goes without saying that many fights, scuffles, bullying and lesser offenses take place out of the sight of teachers and administrators, and much of the disruptive behavior in classroom is simply ignored because teachers learn that reporting it or complaining about it is a waste of time.

Who suffers from this behavior? The three high schools that account for the overwhelming majority of the arrests are overwhelmingly black. That means the students suffering from the disruption, bullying, scuffling and assaults also tend to be black. The well-behaved, law-abiding black kids who go to school and want to study find it more difficult to learn because the teachers are spending classroom time dealing with problem students instead of teaching.

There is important secondary fallout from the discipline problem: Teachers find it demoralizing. Teacher burn-out accounts for much of the high turn-over in schools serving low-income student students; teachers with experience and seniority seek employment in schools where they don’t have to contend with discipline issues. The result: teachers in schools serving low-income populations tend to have less seniority, maturity and experience teaching challenging student populations.

Making an issue of “disparities” in arrests and suspensions based on the paltry evidence presented by the Times-Dispatch is a gross injustice to Henrico school and law-enforcement officials who are trying to preserve a decent learning environment. Such articles distract from the far bigger problem of school discipline. If the T-D, the ACLU and other do-gooders want to help struggling black kids mired in under-performing schools, perhaps they should start by asking what effect the breakdown in discipline has on the kids who want to learn.

The Other SOL Scandal

Source: VDOE SOL Assessment Build-a-Table

Source: VDOE SOL Assessment Build-a-Table

by James A. Bacon

The new, tougher Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores have Virginia’s political establishment in an uproar. Too many children are failing to achieve basic proficiency. Dozens of schools seem institutionally incapable of improvement. Entire school divisions resemble learning-free zones.

The overwhelming focus of public attention has been on the disappointing pass rates for basic proficiency. In just the latest example, Governor Terry McAuliffe vowed yesterday that all schools in Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk will reach full accreditation before he leaves office, the Times-Dispatch reports today.

While the failure of thousands of Virginia kids to meet basic proficiency standards is alarming, the failure of even more kids to achieve “advanced” (college-track in upper grades), learning standards is every bit as panic-inducing. But no one seems to be paying attention.

If students fail to achieve proficiency in reading, writing, history, math and science, they will not qualify for the vast majority of jobs opening up in the knowledge economy. The numbers suggest that as many as one-fifth of Virginia kids will be consigned to the economic margins.  Likewise, the inability to achieve advanced, college-path standards, suggests that only one out of five Virginia public school students will be prepared for college. Not shown in the table above: Advanced scores for math and science are even lower on average. Virginia students are really unprepared for the so-called STEM subjects required for mastery of technology.

Bacon’s bottom line: We’re not doing ourselves any favors by focusing overwhelmingly on bringing the bottom performers up. We need to improve performance across the board.

Now VSU Is in Trouble

VSUby James A. Bacon

Enrollment at Virginia State University in Petersburg is down by 550 students this year, and the historically black university is facing a $5.3 million shortfall, including a $2.4 million reduction in state support. “I think Virginia State is in trouble,” Terone B. Green, who serves on the board of visitors told the Times-Dispatch yesterday.

Norfolk State University, Virginia’s other public, historically black university , is facing difficulties as well, while St. Paul’s College, a private college, closed last year.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), created to educate blacks in an era when they were denied admittance to white institutions, are struggling to redefine themselves in an era of multi-culturalism. Few have significant endowments to fall back on. And they face the same challenges as higher education generally: soaring tuitions that are pricing more and more students out of the market. As an institution that serves blacks, whose incomes have been especially hard hit in recent years, VSU is in an perilous predicament.

The enrollment loss this year will cost VSU $1.6 million in revenue. The loss of enrollment is all the more alarming, given the significant debt burden the university took on to build new residence halls. The university has pinched pennies by closing two old dorms, cutting back on furniture replacement and non-essential maintenance, pruning the full-service dining options on campus, and requiring students to live on-campus. But those changes could boomerang by diminishing the residential experience and depriving students of lower-cost options off campus.

Virginia’s HBCUs are the canary in the coal mine for higher ed. The combination of declining enrollments and heavy debt loads will create problems for other non-elite universities, whatever the ethnic mix of their student body. Washington and Lee University, whose students rank fourth highest in the country for mid-career earnings (see previous post) and which has a large endowment, shouldn’t have much trouble weathering the storm. But VSU doesn’t have a rich alumni base — average midcareer earnings, $71,800 — to tap. And its less affluent student body is especially sensitive to tuition price increases.

The situation likely will get uglier before it gets better.

Race, Culture and SOLs

by James A. Bacon

Here we go one more time… Does cultural background influence the likelihood of Virginia students passing the Standards of Learning tests, or do disparities in results between racial/ethnic groups reflect only the disparity in resources allocated to different schools?

Over the past week, I have been arguing that cultural background is one critical differentiator, not the dominant differentiator — poverty (or economic disadvantage) accounts for roughly 57% of the variation — but it is nonetheless an important one. I allow for the possibility that some schools are better run than others, some teachers better than others, and that differences in resources may account for some variation. But culture is a significant factor, as can plainly be seen in the superior academic performance of Asians, both economically advantaged and disadvantaged, across the board.

But some readers doggedly refuse to acknowledge that culture plays any meaningful role. Among the most tenacious is our old friend Larry Gross, who asks a valid question that needs to be addressed. Pick the same school division, say Fairfax County. Then pick different schools within that division. The SOL pass rate for black children varies substantially. As he commented in my last post, “The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation,” pass rates for blacks for 3rd grade reading in some of the Fairfax Elementary schools are all over the map:

Annadale Terrace 36%
Bren Mar Park 62%
Bull Run 71%
Brush Hill 47%
Rolling Valley 50%
Saratoga 46%

“How,” he asks, “is this explained by culture?”

Let’s take a closer look. Here are the average SOL pass rates for all subjects at all six schools — hand picked by Larry to illustrate his point — broken down by race/ethnicity and by economic disadvantage, with the same information presented in chart form below. (Note: the DOE data did not include some scores for certain subjects for certain racial/ethnic groups. I have made the necessary adjustments.)

fairfax_elementary_SOLs

fairfax_pass_chartAs expected, economic disadvantage plays a major role. For every ethnic/racial group, economically disadvantaged students showed a lower SOL pass rate than those not disadvantaged.

However, differences remain. Same school division, same schools, same economic classification…. We see the same pattern repeated over and over. Asians score highest, whites not quite as high, Hispanics lower, and blacks lower. As discussed in other blog posts, the difference between whites and Hispanics largely disappears when adjusted for English proficiency. But Asians consistently score higher than other races, and blacks usually, although not always, score lower.

Does that settle the issue? Probably not. Here’s what we don’t know. Are some of the selected six schools better run, do they have more experienced teachers, or do they have more resources, any of which my skew results between schools? Those factors undoubtedly come into play — we just can’t isolate those variables from this data.

Am I saying that culture accounts for all the variation between racial/ethnic performance in those six schools? Of course not. Clearly, even after adjusting for economic disadvantage and ethnic background, some variability remains. Equally clearly, there is a lot of variability within ethnic/racial groups. Some Asian kids just can’t get their act together. Some African-American kids are academic superstars.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that culture explains some of the overall superior academic performance of Asian kids. Such a conclusion is not terribly controversial. We see the high performance of Asians back in the home countries of China, Korea and Japan. We’ve all heard of “Tiger moms.” We observe that Asians are not nearly as prominent on athletic teams but way over-represented when academic awards are handed out. We can admit the obvious because it does not upset deeply held political views on race and race relations. But as soon as we begin talking about the differences between whites and blacks, talk of culture becomes incredibly touchy. Indeed, a lot of people, suspecting racist motives, find it offensive when conservative white people bring the subject up.

But the idea that cultural attitudes affect educational outcomes is not terribly controversial in the black community. Bill Cosby famously highlighted the issue. Just yesterday Michelle Obama stressed the importance of education to an inner-city Atlanta school: Continue reading

The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation

by James A. Bacon

And the debate goes on…Yesterday, in “Yes, Virginia, Culture Does Matter in School Performance,” I argued based on the statewide pass rate for the Standards of Learning that disadvantaged Hispanic school children who had proficiency in English actually out-performed disadvantaged white school children (and black as well). I hypothesized that the difference could be attributed to culture, perhaps the work ethic of poor immigrant families.

The blogger Life On the Fall Line countered by suggesting that the superior statewide performance of disadvantaged, English-proficient Hispanics could be attributed to the fact that nearly three-fifths of Virginia’s Hispanic population resides in Northern Virginia, which spends more money per pupil on schools, while most whites and blacks live downstate. “So,” he concluded, “yes, Virginia, schools with superior financial resources matter.”

That sounded like a potentially valid point, so I decided to drill deeper into the Virginia Department of Education “Virginia SOL Assessment Build-A-Table,” to see if that was the case. The chart below compares disadvantaged, English-proficient whites and Hispanics in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia’s largest school division. And for yucks, I threw in disadvantaged, English-proficient Asians and blacks.

Fairfax_SOLs

It turns out that Life on the Fall Line had a point. While poor, English-proficient Hispanics still out-performed their white counterparts, it was by such a narrow margin — less than one percentage point — that it could well fall into the margin of error.

But another stark finding jumps out from this table. Poor Asian kids kicked every other group’s academic ass by a wide margin. These are poor kids, mind you, not the sons and daughters of Indian software engineers and PhDs, whom you’d expect to excel. And, sadly, poor blacks under-performed by an equally large margin.

The response of the structuralists (those who believe that institutional structures discriminate against blacks) will be to say, “Drill down deeper! Look at the allocation of resources school by school.” That would be a worthwhile exercise for anyone who has the energy to do it. I welcome any contributions. But if differences in performance are mainly structural, not cultural, someone needs to explain the exceptional performance of Asian students. Do poor Asian kids attend the best schools with greater resources? If so, how do they pull it off? If they’re disadvantaged, they have no greater resources than their poor white, Hispanic or black peers to move into the top school districts.

While we’re at it, if school resources were the decisive factor, how do we explain that poor Hispanics outperform poor blacks? Do Hispanics not face as much discrimination and institutional racism as blacks?

From my reading of the data, it looks like once Hispanic students master English, they pass the SOLs at the same rate as white students. As I said before, that’s great news. It suggests that Hispanics are rapidly assimilating into mainstream Virginia culture. However, that still leaves the matter of Asians and blacks. How do we explain the persistent superior performance of one group and the under-performance of the other, if not in part by culture?

Yes, Virginia, Culture Does Matter in School Performance

by James A. Bacon

I was planning to give readers a break today from graphs and scatter charts relating to Virginia’s 2014 Standards of Learning tests. Then I read a quote in the Times-Dispatch this morning by Michel Zajur, CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Zajur was lamenting the high Hispanic drop-out rate from schools which, at 11.7%, exceeds the rate for blacks (8.7%), whites (4%) and Asian (3%).

“Zajur and others attribute the high dropout rate to the cultural pressures felt by Hispanic students, the article states. “While other cultures focus on education, Hispanic youths are more often pushed to enter the workforce as early as possible to help support their families.”

Hmmm… Here is a clear example of how culture affects educational achievement, a fact that some readers are determined to deny. Hispanic civic leaders, not right-wing conservatives, believe that their culture pressures young people to drop out of school early, and they’re trying to do something to change it. The article profiles the Passport to Education program in three Richmond-area schools that matches students with mentors and provides a bilingual Website to help families navigate the school system.

So, I began wondering, how are Hispanic students performing in their SOL tests? And could Hispanic culture influence the outcome? While acknowledging the hazards of generalizing about “Hispanic culture” when Virginia Hispanics originate from divers countries across Latin America, I think the answer is a resounding yes — but not in a way that people will expect.

Percentage of students passing 2014 SOLs, contrasting Hispanic students proficient in English, Hispanics not proficient in English, and whites.

Percentage of students passing 2014 SOLs, contrasting Hispanic students proficient in English, Hispanics not proficient in English, and whites.

Overall, Hispanics score significantly lower pass rates than whites. But that generality is deceptive. Utilizing the Virginia Department of Education SOL Assessment Build-a-Table tool, I found a huge gulf between Hispanic students who are proficient in English and those who are not. But, as seen in the chart above, when you compare English-proficient students, nine-tenths of the gap between Hispanics and whites disappears .

That would seem to confirm the idea that culture doesn’t matter. But let’s dig a little deeper. We also know that educational achievement is correlated with socio-economic status. What would happen, I wondered, if we compared apples with apples — disadvantaged but English-proficient Hispanics with disadvantaged white and black students? The results, I suspect, will startle many readers.

english_proficient

Disadvantaged Hispanic kids whose families have lived in the U.S. long enough to acquire English proficiency pass SOLs at a higher rate than disadvantaged whites by non-trivial margins, and blow the socks off the pass rates of black students.  To what factor do we attribute this superior performance? Do Hispanic kids attend schools with superior financial resources? Do they get the more experienced teachers? Does institutional racism favor poor Hispanic kids over poor white and black kids? That’s going to be a hard case to make.

Conversely, could there be a cultural difference? Is it possible that, as first- and second-generation immigrants, Hispanic students have a stronger work ethic than their disadvantaged peers in white and black communities? It is possible that they feel less entitled and more impelled to work hard?

Whatever the answer, it is very encouraging. The SOL data gives us every reason to believe that Hispanic kids in Virginia are assimilating very well once they master the English language.

Update on the Debate over SOL Performance

top_school_divisionsby James A. Bacon

There has been a lively discussion in the comments section of previous blog posts regarding the interpretation of the 2014 Standards of Learning (SOL) data. The debate has largely focused on explaining the gap in the average SOL pass rate between white students and black students.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought reflected in the comments. The first school blames the lower black SOL pass rates on unequal access to resources, most notably access to experienced teachers. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “structural” school of thought. The second school attributes black under-performance to cultural factors, such as peer pressure to avoid “acting white” by pursuing academic achievement. For simplicity’s sake, I call this the “cultural” school of thought.

I have presented evidence in previous posts suggesting that cultural factors play a big role in explaining the SOL performance gap. But the case is hardly a slam-dunk (at least not as I have presented it.) The Blogger who goes by “Life on the Fall Line” makes an interesting argument. Schools with the smallest gaps between white and black performance happen to be among the smaller school systems in the state. When there’s only one elementary school, one middle school and one high school in a jurisdiction, he says, all the white kids and all the black kids in a jurisdiction get thrown in together.

When white parents don’t have a choice but to send their children to schools with black children the racial gap looks like it shrinks. … Broadly speaking, when the chance to discriminate does not present itself as an option, the racial gap closes. Or at least that’s how it appears.

The correlation between small school systems and higher black SOL performance is far from perfect, he concedes, but he thinks the relationship is strong. (It should not be difficult to test his hypothesis. We’ve got data on black SOL performance, and we’ve got data on the number of schools per school district.)

Larry Gross advances a different argument. He points to large variations in the black pass rate from school to school.

There are 45 elementary schools in Henrico with only 10 showing significant percentages of blacks – and the reading scores of the 10 schools vary from 40% pass to 75% pass. Now if “culture” is the cause of the state-level black scores, please explain why “culture” is not being reflecting pretty much the same across different elementary school districts. Why is there a 35% disparity in black pass rates depending on school?

One reason for the variation may be that the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” black students is higher in some school districts than others. The data exists to take that variable into account. My hunch is that the variability would shrink but still persist, and Larry’s question still would need to be answered.

Larry and Life on the Fall Line both make interesting points. Anyone who embraces the “cultural” school of thought needs to address their arguments.

There is a third basket of explanations, which I call the “institutional” school of thought, that remains to be explored here. That line of thinking would attribute some of the gap in student performance to varying quality of administration at different schools and school systems. Arguably, some schools and entire school divisions are just better managed or have more inspired teachers.

Along those lines, instead of chastising failing school systems, perhaps we should be rewarding — or at least recognizing — exceptional school systems. Hill City Jim has ranked Virginia’s school divisions by the average SOL pass rate for black students. The top-performing school systems — all divisions with a pass rate of 70% or higher — appear at the top of this post. Are administrators of those school divisions doing something right, or does superior black student performance reflect lower poverty rates or other factors over which schools have no control?

I’m not sure we’ll find any definitive answers, but we’ll keep asking the questions.

Shedding More Light on Black SOL Performance

black_SOL_pass_rate
by James A. Bacon

After a brief hiatus, we’re back to analyzing the 2013-2014 Standards of Learning results… Hill City Jim provided another data set that’s worth looking at — correlating the relationship between the percentage of black students in Virginia school divisions and the percentage of blacks that pass the SOLs. Why would anyone conduct that exercise? Because there is a body of thought, mainly in the liberal-progressive camp, that a significant factor explaining poor black academic performance is the segregation of black kids in under-resourced black-dominated school divisions.

The chart above shows the distribution of school divisions with a measurable black student population (leaving out 14 school divisions in Western and Southwestern Virginia). The vertical axis shows the SOL pass rate, the horizontal axis the percentage of blacks in the school system. An illustration: The red diamond, representing our old friend West Point, has a 9% black student body and a black pass rate of nearly 94% (the highest pass rate for blacks of any school system in Virginia, incidentally).

The black line shows an R² of o.o704, which (according to my primitive understanding of statistics) suggests that only 7% of the variation in black SOL performance can be attributed to the relative concentration of blacks in the school division.

Bacon’s bottom line: The school division data gives some credence to the liberal-progressive idea that putting black children in a school division with more white children will boost their academic performance. But the correlation is a weak one. And as a practical matter, what can Virginia state and local governments do with this information anyway? Implement school busing across school divisions? The resulting expense and furor would be hugely counter productive.

Of course, there is a deeper level of analysis that we have not performed. One could argue that the percentage of black kids in a school division is less relevant than the percentage of blacks kids in a particular school, on the assumption either (a) that predominantly black schools receive less adequate resources than their predominantly white counterparts, even within the same school division, or (b) that the proximity to white students has a beneficial effect. Unfortunately, analysis of the first proposition is exceedingly difficult to perform — at least it is in Henrico County, which I have delved into in the past. Amazingly, Virginia school districts do not break down spending by individual schools. As for the second proposition, that proximity to white children has some magical effect on blacks, that strikes me as borderline racist. It amazes me that any liberal or progressive would ever advance such an argument.

In the final analysis, this chart, while interesting, does not settle anything. Hill City Jim has some more suggestions for SOL analysis, so, we may be back soon.

Download spreadsheet, “Black students percentage of division.”

When the Gender Gap Meets the Racial Gap

gender_gapby James A. Bacon

When remarking upon disparities in educational outcomes, most pundits focus on the racial/ethnic gap between Asians and whites on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other. That’s no surprise, given the distressing size of the gap and the dismal implications of that gap for the prospects for forging a society in which every child has an equal shot at succeeding in life. But there’s another gap, not quite as large, but equally pervasive — the gender gap. Girls out-perform boys academically across the board. Combine the gender gap with the ethnic/racial gap, and that spells very bad news for the upcoming generation of black males.

To examine the dimensions of this gap, I used Virginia’s awesome “SOL Assessment Build a Table” tool that allows users to take a deep dive into the data. I compared male vs female pass and fail rates on reading, writing, history, math and science SOLs across all schools and grades, then broke down the gender disparities by racial/ethnic group to see if the disparities were worse for some groups than others. The chart above shows the male-female gap — the difference between the percentage of females who passed the the percentage of males who passed. Here’s the detailed data.

The most striking pattern is that boys fail SOLs at a higher rate than girls in every subject area. The gap is greatest for writing and reading and smallest for history/social science and science. Some sub-groups of boys marginally out-perform girls in science but the difference is small. Generally speaking, the performance gap for “advanced,” as opposed to simple “proficiency” accentuates girls’ academic superiority, with science and history/social sciences the main exceptions.

Another broad conclusion is that the gender gap is narrowest among whites and Asians, and the most glaring among blacks and American-Indians. Statewide, more than 45% of all black males fail the writing SOLs; nearly 43% fail the math SOLs. Without question, the fact that so many blacks are economically disadvantaged plays a role here. But the under-performance of black males is so strong that other factors undoubtedly come into play.

The difference cannot be explained by the distribution of blacks in “bad” schools and other races in “good” schools. Larry Gross has compared the SOL pass rates for economically disadvantaged whites and blacks (not distinguishing between gender) in Henrico County elementary schools and the pattern remains depressingly the same in school after school. (See his data run here.)

I’m sure people can provide many different explanations for the academic plight of Virginia’s black males. Some will argue that institutional racism runs deeper than we ever imagined. I am more inclined to attribute the gap to different cultural attitudes and family structures among ethnic/racial groups, although I am open to the argument that both institutional and cultural factors may be at work. Whatever the explanation, we need to get to the bottom of it. In a technology-driven knowledge economy in which education is more critical than ever to attaining a middle-class lifestyle, it is frightening to think that half the black males going through school today are fated to live at the economic margins.

Plumbing the SOL Racial Gap

SOL_gapby James A. Bacon

Jim Weigand, also known on this blog as Hill City Jim, responded to my call yesterday for a crowd-sourcing of the Standards of Learning data to better understand the key drivers of educational performance. Why do some school systems show SOL pass rates that are so much higher than others? Clearly, the level of affluence and education in a school division plays a major role. But does that tell the whole story? Do some racial or regional groups put a higher or lesser premium on educational achievement than others? Do some school divisions simply do a better job?

One of the starkest demographic divisions in SOL performance is race. As Weigand crunched the numbers, white students statewide had an 84% pass rate on their SOLs while black students had a 63% pass rate — a racial gap of 21 percentage points. (Weigand did not run numbers for Asians, Hispanics or other ethnic/racial minorities.) Tragically, the low pass rate is an advance indicator that yet another generation of blacks will be relegated to the bottom of the educational and income hierarchy in the United States.

The big question is why. Does the SOL performance gap reflect inequalities in the distribution of resources in Virginia school systems? Does it reflect different cultural attitudes among blacks — an aversion to “acting white”? Or are other factors responsible — subtler forms of institutional racism, perhaps, or the distribution of races between wealthy and poor regions of the state? Liberals and conservatives will be tempted to revert to their default ideological positions (liberals skew to resources/racism explanations, conservatives tend to blame black cultural attitudes) but this is too important to leave to ideology. We need reality-based answers so we can address real problems, not philosophical figments.

I have refined Weigand’s numbers with an eye to identifying outliers: the 10 school divisions with the smallest racial performance gaps and the 10 divisions with the largest gaps. Interestingly enough, the tiny West Point school system is an extreme outlier. In yesterday’s analysis, the mill town showed the second highest SOL composite pass rate of any system in the state. In today’s data, it is the one school system in Virginia where black students marginally out-performed white students! Once again, I challenge an enterprising newspaper reporter to take a close look at the West Point school system to see what’s going on there.

Other observations from the outliers:

  • School divisions with small gaps in racial performance are smaller school systems. Are these divisions more thoroughly integrated by virtue of having fewer schools? If you’ve got only one high school in the jurisdiction, it has to be integrated. Or are there other ways in which smaller school systems could lead to more egalitarian results?
  • The smallest-gap school divisions also tend to come from poor regions of the state. If everyone is poor together, perhaps there are fewer racial disparities in household income and education.
  • The biggest-gap school divisions skew more urban. And what’s going on in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, both of which appear on the list of school divisions with the biggest racial gaps? That is not what we’d expect from school systems that serve children of University of Virginia faculty and administrators.

Looking at outliers is a useful exercise but it will take us only so far. We need to look at the distribution of SOL performance across all school systems, including those closer to the mean. It’s also worth exploring other performance gaps — how about the gap between Asians and everyone else, including whites? How about the gender gap? To what degree do girls out-perform boys statewide? And what about the gender gap within racial groups? Is that gap greater in some ethnic or regional cultures (inner-city black, white Appalachian) than others?

If you want to take this analysis to the next level, you can access Weigand’s numbers here. Or, please, bring fresh data to the discussion.