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FCAT gap narrowing but it's slow progress

Published June 14, 2006

Minority students inched closer to their white peers on Florida test scores this year, but their gains continue to come in the smallest of increments.

Closing the achievement gap — a task that many top educators consider to be Job One — remains an achingly slow process, according to figures released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.

At their current rate of academic improvement, black and Hispanic students will not catch up to white students for another generation.

The stakes are high, according to educators, researchers and policymakers, who fear that continued low performance by minority students will some day burden the nation with a huge underclass.

Depending on the county, only 30 to 40 percent of black children in the Tampa Bay area perform at their grade level in reading.

That compares to 55 to 68 percent of white students achieving at grade level.

The gulf between the two groups remains 20 to 25 percentage points in the smaller counties of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus.

It widens to more than 30 percent in the large, urban counties of Hillsborough and Pinellas.

The gap between Hispanic and white students continues to be in the 10 to 15 percentage point range.

Across Florida and in all five local counties, the gap between white and black students closed this year, but by only 1 or 2 percentage points.

Pasco County proved the exception, with black students narrowing the gap by 5 percentage points.

To be sure, black and Hispanic students made gains. But so did white students, illustrating the difficulty in closing the gap.

"We have to run twice as fast just to keep up,’’ said Pat Spencer, secretary of the Hillsborough NAACP.

Still, Spencer and others said the numbers at least are headed in the right direction.

"I’m pleased that there’s some improvement,’’ said Watson Haynes, a St. Petersburg businessman who heads a group pushing Pinellas schools to move more aggressively on the gap.

Haynes said superintendent Clayton Wilcox is working hard on the problem but that some administrators and teachers are not showing the same intensity.

Hillsborough assistant superintendent Michael Grego, who heads the district’s achievement gap committee, said he knows Hillsborough has a way to go. But he pointed to several successes.

Among them: several high-poverty schools, including Wimauma Elementary and Webb Middle, that Wednesday boosted their state grades from D and C to A.

"The only way to get at the overall greatness is one school, or one student, or one program at a time," Grego said. "There’s not a magic wand you can wave."

He argued it is good to see all groups of students gaining, even if the gap remains.

"We’re working on it," said Hillsborough School Board member Doretha Edgecomb. "But that set of circumstances didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be cured overnight."

In a report last month on the status of black student achievement, Pinellas officials said they have implemented "many high quality strategies" to help black students.

They also said the district is monitoring how well those strategies are working.

[Last modified June 15, 2006, 00:09:26]

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