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Achievement
test barriers

Language issues, poverty among reasons why some score badly, activists say

This is the first of three articles on achievement gaps in Decatur test scores

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com · 340-2432

Poverty, culture and language are the barriers that created achievement gaps in Decatur City Schools’ standardized test scores.

Educators and minority activists list these areas as why white students scored an average of 24 percent higher than their black and Hispanic classmates on the Alabama Reading and Math Test.

Decatur’s scores for the 10th edition of the Stanford Achievement Test show similar gaps. White students scored at least 25 percentile points higher than black and Hispanic students on every category of this norm-referenced test. Students in grades three through eight take the two tests.

Black students scored just 0.11 percent better than Hispanic students on the Reading and Math Test and are equal, or a few percentile points higher, on the SAT-10.

Special Education Director Stefanie Underwood oversees Decatur’s English-as-a-Second-Language Program. She called Decatur a “gateway city” –– a first stop in the United States for Hispanic immigrants.

Educators said poverty is a major obstacle to which they attribute the racial gaps,
particularly between black and white students. They said there is a noticeable difference in income levels, but specific numbers are not available.

Fifty-one percent of Decatur’s students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, a measure of poverty in the schools. Again, no racial or ethnic breakdown is available.

“Just from looking at the data, the gaps seem to track pretty well with those who qualify for free-or-reduced lunch,” Superintendent Sam Houston said.

According to AlabamaPoverty.org, about 32 percent of blacks in Morgan County are living below the poverty line, while about 10 percent of whites live in poverty. A percentage for Hispanics living in poverty is not available.

While test scores give information by race, there is no income level affixed.

“I hate to blame poverty, but poverty is always a factor,” said Bruce Jones of Decatur Youth Services.

Jones sees the effects of poverty manifest in a multitude of ways. He said some financially struggling parents, many of whom are dropouts, don’t emphasize education so their children don’t value education.

Some are resigned to a life of poverty, so they don’t use education as the way out of the cycle.

Some parents, particularly single parents, work so hard to pay bills they don’t have the time or the money to give those students the educational opportunities a middle- or upper-income child might receive.

Brookhaven Middle School Principal Larry Collier said the home lives of children of poverty usually aren’t stable. He said some parents don’t take the time to build that intrinsic motivation to do well in school.

“Many of the parents and students have misplaced values,” Collier said. “They don’t understand that education is a way out.”

Collier said children of poverty miss educational opportunities. He said they don’t get read to when they’re young or talked to about math, so they are behind when they start school.

Jones said this starting from behind begins a cycle. As they struggle academically, and they can’t keep up, they become behavioral problems or are “labeled as dumb.” Some end up in less strenuous special education programs or in alternative school. If they struggle in school, they often succumb to bad outside influences.

“Once a kid, no matter if he’s black or white, is labeled as being behind or a problem, they rarely overcome that label,” Jones said.

Test scores show students make improvements in fourth and fifth grades, but they drop again in sixth grade. Collier and Jones said the transition from elementary to middle school is difficult for most students, especially since it coincides with puberty.

“The sixth-graders are like babies compared to the seventh- and eighth-graders when they come to me,” Collier said.

Jones said he sees a trend in students not making this transition well, falling behind in middle school and then dropping out when they turn 16 because they’re so far behind.

He believes the schools are doing everything they can within their financial restraints to help these children of poverty. Schools offer tutoring, but transportation is an issue, if it’s after school.

Collier said there’s also a cultural bias within the standardized tests. He said the language used in the test might mean one thing in a white culture and another in the black culture.

But he doesn’t know of a solution because he doesn’t see how they could gear the test to each of the country’s multitude of cultures.

On Monday: Language a barrier for Hispanics on standardized tests.

ESL students

The Alabama Department of Education shows the number of English-as-Second-Language students reported by the following local school systems.

1. DeKalb County — 1,091.

2. Mobile County — 980.

3. Montgomery County — 889.

4. Huntsville City — 843.

5. Decatur City 809.

6. Hoover City— 734.

7. Albertville City — 729.

10. Fort Payne City — 687.

11. Birmingham City — 563.

12. Blount County — 495.

13. Russellville City — 483.

14. Chilton County — 383.

15. Madison County — 373.

Others of interest: Lawrence County, 59; Morgan County, 214; Limestone County, 243; Athens City, 226; and Hartselle City, 59.

Bayne Hughes

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