This is my constant thought about my students. Recent data from my classroom and an eye-opening new book, African Americans and Standardized Tests: The Real Reason for Low Test Scores, have borne it out.
The data from my classroom has been consistent. At my school, we administer math and English “interim assessments” three times a year. The teachers create the exams, often drawing upon practice SAT, AP exam, and state tests. Within 48 hours of the testing, teachers have run the students’ scores through the in-house Scantron machine and printed out data reports. Then the Friday of interim assessment week is set aside as a student-free professional development “data day” in which the entire cohort of teachers serving a grade-level scours each kid’s test and open-ended responses. We discuss patterns, draw up action plans, and identify students of concern. It’s a model of using data to drive instruction.
Every single one of these data days is an occasion for hand-wringing. The lower-achieving students rarely display meaningful progress. Their essays are often cringe-worthy. For some 11th- and 12th-graders on the cusp of heading to college, their lack of mastery of the English language can be downright scary.
I have a clutch of students who read for pleasure, yet bizarrely hand in assignments only sporadically. Let’s call them “Readers.” These are the kids who take home The Kite Runner and read the whole thing in two days—then never write any of their journal responses. Their grades do not reflect their abilities. However, these students always score at or near the very top of the class on these standardized tests.
I have many more students who hand in almost all of their assignments, yet they— according to their own pronouncements— dislike reading and never do it except when forced. They are the moaners and groaners when new books are distributed in class. They are always at or near the bottom of the statistical heap. Let’s call them “Worker Bees.”
The most recent data day sent me into a tizzy of bafflement about how to boost my Worker Bees. An hour of Amazon.com book browsing (my new addiction) led me to order Clark Atlanta University professor Veda Jairrels’s scarily titled African Americans and Standardized Tests: The Real Reason for Low Test Scores. I devoured the 140 pages in one sitting.
Jairrels, a lawyer and an education professor, gave me little hope for the upward mobility (academically and professionally) for most of my non-reading Worker Bees. She lowers the boom in her introduction:
I believe African Americans score the lowest… because of a lack of long-term voluntary reading. Voluntary reading is also referred to as reading for pleasure… This emphasis on reading should begin at birth (i.e. parents reading to their infants). The amount of reading that children do in connection with school assignments is often not enough…
When I tell African American parents about the importance of taking their children to the library, they sometimes reply, “My child has plenty of books at home.” My unspoken response is, “No, you don’t. You just think you do.”
Ugh. She goes on to lay out extensive, sobering data reflecting African Amercans’ poor performance relative to other groups on tests. For example, the mean score for African American college-bound seniors whose parents earn more than $100,000 on the 2007 SAT Writing test was 469; The mean score for white students whose parents earned less than $10,000 was higher, at 474. At the household income of $100,000 or higher, the mean score for white students was 540. And so on.
Jairrels claims the core reason for this disparity is an accumulated deficit of skills and knowledge from African American children not reading enough for pleasure. Reading teaches you words; it shows other places and perspectives. It broadens one’s world. She wants parents to be getting kids pumped about reading from birth, and for schools to immerse students in reading opportunities from the moment they first enroll.
After finishing a recent unit using the novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, James, one of my Worker Bee 11th-graders told me, with a real sense of accomplishment, “Mr. Brown, this is the first book that I ever really read.”
I was proud of him. James’s effort in class this semester has been strong. He still remains woefully behind his Reader peers. If he somehow caught up, he’d be a statistical anomaly.
Reading is everything. When kids don’t read at an early age, they fall behind. I believe that all children can learn, but when, for many, valuable years of reading and learning have been squandered, those students awaken in the upper grades at a tremendous deficit. Veda Jairrels sees it, and I see it in my classroom every day.
No meaningful education reform can ignore this.