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Test scores show troubling trends

Published October 25, 2005

Hispanic boys are falling further behind girls in middle school, and there's a baffling drop among white girls.

Boys across the nation are slowly catching up to girls in reading. But in Florida, national test scores show a widening gap between Hispanic boys and girls in middle school, and a puzzling dropoff in scores among white girls.

"The Latino parents, they put more emphasis and put more pressure on the girls," said Victor Fernandez, the principal of Pierce Middle School in Tampa, which has a majority Hispanic population. "The expectations are much higher for the girls."

On a scale of 1 to 500, fourth-grade boys nationally have gained 1 percentage point on fourth-grade girls in reading since 2003, while the gap between eighth-grade boys and girls has stayed the same, results from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress test showed last week.

Still, only 59 percent of fourth-grade boys have partially mastered basic reading skills, compared to 66 percent of fourth-grade girls.

In eighth grade, the boys are at 66 percent and the girls at 76 percent.

"We'll take what we can get at this point," said Kathy Stevens, training director for the Colorado-based Gurian Institute, which helps teachers understand how gender affects learning. But "the numbers we have are still pretty bleak."

In Florida, the same pattern is unfolding at a slightly faster rate: Fourth-grade boys moved 3 points closer to the girls this year, and now are 5 points from pulling even. Meanwhile, eighth-grade boys fell behind another point.

The gender gap is less publicized than the achievement gap between white and minority students, and it clashes sharply with an outdated public perception that girls are behind. By many academic indicators, including NAEP reading scores, girls have been outperforming boys for years. In math, NAEP scores show parity.

The NAEP, often called "the nation's report card," is a widely respected test given to fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders every other year. This year's 12th-grade results have not been released.

Some observers say the latest results show that efforts to focus more attention on struggling students is narrowing both gaps, but critics complain about the pace. At current rates of progress, white students will continue to outpace minorities, and girls will continue to best boys, for decades.

Like the achievement gap, the gender gap grows wider as students move up in grade.

In Florida, fourth-grade boys have chipped four points from the girls' lead in NAEP reading scores since 1998, the year Gov. Jeb Bush was first elected. But over the same period, the gap between eighth-grade boys and girls has not changed.

Some of the Florida numbers are head scratchers.

White girls continue to score higher than any other group. But they also dropped more than any other group between 2003 and 2005, in both fourth and eighth grades.

Another surprise: The gap among Hispanic eighth-graders.

The boys lost 2 points since 2003 while the girls gained 4, expanding the gulf between them to 16 points and making it the widest among any group.

In the long run, the gap has narrowed slightly since 1998. But the percentage of Hispanic boys in eighth grade who read at a basic level is still only 53 percent, compared to 72 percent for the girls.

The reasons are many, said Fernandez, the middle school principal.

Many Hispanic males are pessimistic about their chances for college and enter the work force early. Many are first-generation Americans who must deal with language barriers.

"We still have a lot of migration here," he said. "We have kids who just got here from Cuba two or three weeks ago."

But Fernandez said Hispanic parents also are to blame.

"The boys, they are always being kind of the babies," he said. Their parents "pamper them, they spoil them. ... That's the culture."

State and national education officials are banking on the gains they're seeing with elementary school students - where reading programs and other efforts have focused the most attention - to move up to higher grades as the kids advance.

"We've invested the resources in grades K, 1 and 2," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said after scores were announced last week. "It's going to take some time to have these things show effect dramatically in results."

If she's right, reading scores will look better for the next wave of Hispanic boys in Florida middle schools. Among fourth-graders, reading scores for Hispanic boys jumped 8 points this year.

No other group improved as much.

[Last modified October 25, 2005, 03:00:29]

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