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State’s Hispanic students score well, but African-Americans lagging

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Updated: March 23, 2013 6:09AM

Hispanic eighth-graders in Illinois have higher reading scores than the rest of the nation’s big states, but the state’s African-American children still struggle mightily with reading, math and science.

In fact, black fourth-graders in Illinois scored worst of the states in reading, and black students in fourth and eighth grade scored well below the national average and the lowest of the “mega states.”

That’s according to a new report — “Mega-states: An Analysis of Student Performance in the Five Most Heavily Populated States” — published Thursday that examines test scores in the country’s five largest states.

Fourth-graders overall in Illinois followed the national average in reading, math and science. The state’s eighth-graders read better than the nation but had lower science scores.

Mary O’Brian, acting assessment director for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the Hispanic successes were mirrored in the Illinois Student Assessment Test — the ISAT — where some 80 percent of Hispanic students in eighth grade met or exceeded state standards. And the state now requires students classified as English Language Learners to speak better English than before to transition out of special classes, so they are supported for a longer time, she said.

“The additional support may be a factor in ELL students’ performance on the reading assessment,” she said.

As for the lagging seen among black students, ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus said that’s one of the reasons why the state has set up a Center for School Improvement.

“That’s why we’ve established it and awarded a proven leader in turning around schools and closing the achievement gap,” she said.

The state has also identified exemplary districts — Urbana, for example, “where black-white achievement gaps have been closed and sharing information about how they were able to address achievement gaps,” she said.

Poverty helps explain the racial divide, said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University who studies the achievement gap especially for African-American boys.

“You could almost predict that whatever groups have the highest poverty rates will have the lowest achievement rates,” he said. “The fact is when you look at these chronically under-performing schools, who are they serving? The poorest kids who are disproportionately African-American.”

Closing the gap takes smaller class sizes, integrating children to break up concentrated pockets of poverty and helping to fix neighborhoods, too, Noguera said.

“It’s the concentration of the most disadvantaged schools that’s the most lethal,” Noguera said.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a no-stakes test given to a nationwide sample of students every two years as a common yardstick, released details of the five largest states for demographic reasons.

The “mega states” — Illinois, California, Texas, New York and Florida — alone contain 40 percent of the country’s public school students and a third of the public schools.

They’re where most of the country’s English Language Learners live and more than a third of the 9 million families below the poverty line live, too.

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