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Friday, July 01, 2005

The Achievement Gap

Yesterday I wrote about the pressure to take honors math, but I didn’t even consider the reasons for this pressure. The implied one — which I tried to debunk — was that honors math is necessary in order to get into a good college. But I learned a lot of other reasons today, while participating in a workshop on the Achievement Gap. Some of these were legitimate, while others were based on false premises or illogical reasoning. It’s worth going through this exercise: if you’re a high-school student, or the parent of a high-school student, what do you think are the reasons to take honors math? And which of these stand up under close scrutiny?

Oh... so you wonder what the connection with the achivement gap might be. Whatever the reasons for taking honors math might be, it’s a cause for concern if certain identifiable groups are significantly under-represented in honors math classes. I teach both college-prep and honors math curses, and of course both levels contain a mixture of different ethnicities; you can find an Asian kid in college-prep Algebra II and a black kid in BC Calculus. But... the ratios are disproportionate. The official statistics are misleading, since the DOE, unlike the Census, places each of our many mixed-race students into one bin or another. But anyway, those official statistics say that Weston High School is 5.3% African-American/Black, 12.9% Asian, 2.1% Hispanic/Latino, 0.3% Native American, and 79.5% White. There is no official record of the number of Jewish students among the white students, but my rough count is that 20-22% of Weston High School students are Jewish. Let’s call it 21%, which would leave 58.5% in the white non-Jewish category. (A very surprising statistic, by the way, to the many people who estimate that 95% are in that category! They have a very out-of-date view of Weston.)

When we were discussing a previous Achivement Gap workshop in one of my honors classes, one girl suddenly looked around the room and exclaimed, “Oh my God! Everyone here is either Jewish or Asian!” It turned out, of course, to be untrue: we actually found three students who were neither. (Out of a total of 24.) Nevertheless, these two minority groups made up 88% of this particular section but only 34% of the school population as a whole. (Most honors classes, by the way, aren’t quite so heavily Jewish and Asian. For whatever reason, this particular section was somewhat atypical.) There are cultural reasons — partly stereotypical, but partly true — why Jews and Asians are statistically more likely than other minority groups to choose honors math classes. But what can we do to raise the number of black and Hispanic students who feel comfortable making the same choice — and are prepared to thrive in this context?

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