THOMAS C. TOBIN and JEFF SOLOCHEK
Minority students' test scores improve, but not fast enough to catch up in this generation.
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 that is 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 on 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.
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 those strategies' success.
Among the measures is an effort to place more black students in honors and other higher level courses, in part by lowering the bar for them. Black enrollment in some of those classes has doubled, the report said.
The report comes as Pinellas faces separate legal challenges from two groups who say the district has not worked hard enough to close the gap.
One lawsuit alleges the gap is the district's fault. But district lawyers are preparing to file a motion contesting that notion.
While the district works to meet the special needs of black students from low-income homes, state law says it cannot be held responsible for every child's success, said School Board attorney Jim Robinson.
"We offer an opportunity for a high quality education," he said. "We do not offer a guarantee of a high-quality education."
The district has hired two nationally known experts in the gap to thoroughly examine its approach. If they determine the district is doing something wrong, officials will address that, Robinson said. But he also said he expects the experts to conclude that other factors such as low income play a role in the gap.
"Some kids come to us behind the eight ball,'' he said, "and we're playing catch-up from that point forward."