Academic excellence should be an expectation for all students regardless of race, economic background and other factors. While I am delighted that District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser and other city officials are laser focused on an education plan for the city, the looming specter of the “achievement gap” hangs over the school system. And, this gap must be addressed head-on before further action is taken.

Oped-George Lambert-001
George H. Lambert Jr.

The achievement gap speaks to a national trend in which Black and Latino students fare worse academically than their White counterparts. For over 50 years, the promise of education equity has proven elusive for students of color as they’ve made minimal progress in core classes such as math and reading. There are now trends showing Latino students slightly bypassing Black students academically while also comparatively scoring lower across the national average.

The Coleman Report, first issued in 1965 as the “Equality of Educational Opportunity” report, was sparked by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address inequity in access to quality education – especially across southern states – and Blacks’ lower racial record of achievement when compared to Whites. At the time, the report found that the average White 12th-grader scored ahead of the average Black student at a rate of 87 percent.

Fifty years later, that gap has not closed. In fact, there are just incremental improvements across the nation. While strides have been made in math and reading, Black students are still far behind even when they live in districts boasting higher dollar-per-student funding. Naturally, a few crucial measures are needed: closing the gap by providing the same level of instruction to all students and pushing those students to a space where achievement can be obtained.  

It’s a sensible solution. However, that’s a bridge we haven’t constructed, yet.

In national reports that have come generations after that Coleman Report, there are striking resemblances in the data. A data set report from the Stanford Graduate School of Education shows that on average Black students score two grades lower than their White counterparts nationally (along with Latinos scoring a grade-and-a-half lower). In addition, the poorer the school district, the higher the gaps between students of color and Whites.

In the District of Columbia, a 2016 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams report revealed that 25 percent of students between the third and eighth grades met or exceeded test scores in English. Just 24 percent of students made a new benchmark in math. Those scores are alarming considering a public school population where Black children account for 67 percent compared to just 12 percent that are White. Black students in the District are also trailing Latinos, who are 17 percent of the school population.

The sobering fact is also true for the city’s high school students.  Only 4 percent of the Black student body scores proficiently in geometry while Latino students score at 8 percent. Additionally, 25 percent of Latino students score proficiently in English compared to 20 percent for Black students. These numbers illustrate a clear disconnect in how students are expected to achieve and the lack of measures taken to bring them up to speed.

As the District’s “Every Student Succeeds Act” awaits Mayor Bowser’s approval, there’s an urgent need to ensure it focuses as much on the achievement gap as it does on system-wide performance metrics. It’s essential we have a plan that makes raising proficiency scores for Black and Latino children a top priority. At the moment, there is concern that the plan, in its current state, may keep the proficiency needs lowered for 22 years until the year 2039. That baseline was set in an effort to encourage a level of investment from both educators and schools to enable a new approach to instruction.

Still, there’s a need for caution before proceeding. Crucial, but valid questions emerge: In calibrating proficiency standards for Black and Latino students is the District telling underserved families that they’re not expected to exceed academic and intellectual expectations? And: Do we expect Black and Latino students to simply meet the bare minimum in academic requirements as opposed to becoming high-excelling, Ivy League-standard scholars? Those same expectations are routinely applied to White and Asian students – so what’s the matter with applying them, equally, to Black and Latino students?  

Hence, it’s essential that the DCPS look closely at the achievement gap’s detrimental effect in the long term. With students not improving in core classes, they are destined for low-wage jobs and other negative socio-economic stigmas that already plague Black and Latino communities in droves.

When students are given an even playing field of instruction coupled with the assurance they’ll receive assistance beyond the classroom, the gap could be lessened. If the data shows that Black and Latino students are lagging due to factors such as lack of access to tutoring or fewer reaffirmed lessons at home, there should be room in the plan for those opportunities.

If the academic standards are set high and the quality of instruction matches a child’s interest in learning, there should be no reason to think a Black or Latino child can’t achieve their goals. The nation’s capital should be a leader in showing that students in urban or challenged environments can thrive if they’re equally instructed and supported.

Unless the achievement gap is narrowed, the outcomes will remain just as stagnant in the next 22 years. The region and its residents can’t afford to let that happen.

George H. Lambert Jr. is, based in Washington, D.C.