Wednesday, September 28

The Achievement Gap in Elite Schools


AN uneasy amalgam of pride and discontent, Caroline Mitchell sat amid the balloons and beach chairs on the front lawn of Princeton High School, watching the Class of 2004 graduate. Her pride was for the seniors' average SAT score of 1237, third-highest in the state, and their admission to elite universities like Harvard, Yale and Duke. As president of the high school alumni association and community liaison for the school district, Ms. Mitchell deserved to bask in the tradition of public-education excellence.

Discontent, though, was what she felt about Blake, her own son. He was receiving his diploma on this June afternoon only after years of struggle - the failed English class in ninth grade, the science teacher who said he was capable only of C's, the assignment to a remedial "basic skills" class. Even at that, Ms. Mitchell realized, Blake had fared better than several friends who were nowhere to be seen in the procession of gowns and mortarboards. They were headed instead for summer school.

"I said to myself: 'Oh, no. Please, no,' " Ms. Mitchell recalled. "I was so hurt. These were bright kids. This shouldn't have been happening."

It did not escape Ms. Mitchell's perception that her son and most of those faltering classmates were black. They were the evidence of a prosperous, accomplished school district's dirty little secret, a racial achievement gap that has been observed, acknowledged and left uncorrected for decades. Now that pattern just may have to change under the pressure of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Several months after Blake graduated, Princeton High School (and thus the district as a whole) ran afoul of the statute for the first time, based on the lagging scores of African-American students on a standardized English test given to 11th graders. Last month, the school was cited for the second year in a row, this time because 37 percent of black students failed to meet standards in English, and 55 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Hispanics failed in math.

One of the standard complaints about No Child Left Behind by its critics in public education is that it punishes urban schools that are chronically underfinanced and already contending with a concentration of poor, nonwhite, bilingual and special-education pupils. Princeton could hardly be more different. It is an Ivy League town with a minority population of slightly more than 10 percent and per-student spending well above the state average. The high school sends 94 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges and offers 29 different Advanced Placement courses. Over all, 98 percent of Princeton High School students exceed the math and English standards required by No Child Left Behind.

So is the problem with the district, or is the problem with the law?

The answer seems clear to those parents - mostly black, but some white and Hispanic - who have been raising the issue of the achievement gap for years. While the Princeton community includes a slice of black bourgeoisie attached to the university or nearby corporations, most of the African-American population came here a century or more ago to serve as the butlers, maids, cooks and chauffeurs of a university and town with a nearly Southern fondness for segregation. The high school, for instance, did not integrate for nearly 20 years after its founding in 1898, and the elementary schools waited until they were compelled by state law in 1947.

As far back as the 1960's, according to the local historical society, black students suffered from "low expectations from teachers" and a high dropout rate. In the early 1990's, an interracial body calling itself the Robeson Group - in homage to Paul Robeson, the most famous product of black Princeton - mobilized to recruit more black teachers and help elect the first black member to the school board.

Despite such efforts, the achievement gap remained. A tracking system for math separates students in middle school. The high school, while not formally tracked, has such a demand for seats in Advanced Placement classes and honors sections that a rigid hierarchy exists in effect. Guidance counselors find their time consumed by writing recommendation letters for seniors who routinely apply to 10 or more high-end schools.

And until the No Child Left Behind law was enacted there were no concrete consequences for failing to address the resulting disparity. Which may be why a number of black parents here credit the federal law with forcing attention on the underside of public education in Princeton. It requires all districts to reveal test results and meet performance standards by various subgroups, including race.

"If you scratch the surface of this town, a lot of contradictions are going to emerge," said Ron Plummer, a project manager for a technology company and a co-chairman of the school district's minority education committee. "I do have some suspicions when measurements come from standardized tests alone. But if it's going to shine a bright light on the inadequacies of the system, especially as it regards children of color, then I'm all in favor."

In any case, there can be a tone of defensiveness, even smugness, among certain school leaders in Princeton. "We're proud of our F," said Lewis Goldstein, the assistant superintendent, referring to the contradiction between the district's overall success and its standing under No Child Left Behind. "It's as if you handed in your homework and the teacher handed it back and you got a 98 on it and an F. That's the situation we're in."

TO be fair to Princeton, it is hardly the only community to include both a large number of superachieving students and a smaller but persistent number of low-income, nonwhite stragglers. Princeton, in fact, belongs to an organization of 25 similar school districts, the Minority Student Achievement Network, which includes Evanston, Ill.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Eugene, Ore., among others, that are working to find techniques to address the issue.

Princeton's superintendent, Judith Wilson, has accepted the challenge of reducing the achievement gap. As a newcomer to the district - she arrived last February from the working-class, half-minority district in Woodbury, N.J., near Camden - she sounds less beholden than some of her colleagues to Princeton's exalted sense of itself.

"If the gap can't be narrowed in Princeton," she said in an interview in her office last week, "then where can it be narrowed? There can't be a question here of resources, or of community support, or of quality of staff. So if we can't impact the students who are not born into privilege, then where can it happen?"