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Schools search for ways to expand ‘advanced’ MCAS ranks

Metco student Sarina Gaines has a question for teacher Hanna Bruno during a new study-skills class at Concord-Carlisle High School.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Metco student Sarina Gaines has a question for teacher Hanna Bruno during a new study-skills class at Concord-Carlisle High School.

Local high schools that participate in the Metco program are redoubling efforts to challenge and equip all students to achieve top MCAS scores, officials said, after recent test results showed African-American students in the regional collaboration persistently lagging behind their white classmates.

In most area school districts that participate in the voluntary school-integration program, the vast majority of 10th-graders of all races scored at least “proficient” on the MCAS exams taken last spring. But a Globe review of the data found a stark gap between students of different races who achieved “advanced” scores.

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“It is frustrating to me,” said Cheryl Maloney, the superintendent of schools in Weston, where 71 percent of white students scored “advanced” on their 10th-grade English MCAS, compared with 18 percent of black students — a gap of 53 percentage points. “We look at that information very carefully every year. Every year we come back to the table and say that’s unacceptable; it shouldn’t be that way.”

“Nationally, we have an achievement gap, and Newton is not immune from that gap,” said David Fleishman, superintendent in Newton, where there was a 48-point gap between white and black 10th-graders scoring “advanced” in English. “As a society, it’s an incredible challenge, and we obviously need to address it.”

Maloney, Fleishman, and other area educators said they are constantly working to find ways to narrow the achievement gaps that exist within their schools. Doing so can be tricky, they said, because the causes of the gap are multiple and sometimes murky — a mix of socioeconomic and identity-based factors like access to technology, what language is spoken at home, teachers’ expectations of students, and students’ own self-perceptions.

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The numbers are staggering — a gap of 64 percentage points between white and black 10th-graders at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High scoring “advanced” in math; a 60-point gap in English at Belmont High; a 56-point gap in math at Concord-Carlisle High; a 49-point gap in English in Lexington; and a 47-point gap in math at Wellesley High.

The upshot: At some districts, white 10th-graders were three or four times more likely than black 10th-graders to score “advanced” on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.

‘If we’re going to be getting our kids into a global economy, it’s going to be about that extra boost, not that middle level.’

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The sample sizes of black students sitting for 10th-grade exams can be small, but the aggregated data for all grades also showed substantial differences. In Newton, for example, 54 percent of white students scored advanced in math across all grades, while the number for black students was 15 percent. 

Gaps also existed between other ethnic groups. Statewide, Asian students outperformed state averages, while Latino students as a whole scored lower than state averages.

In larger districts close to Boston — such as Newton and Brookline — many students of color are local residents. In suburban districts such as Concord-Carlisle, the vast majority of black and Latino students are Boston residents who are attending the school through Metco, or the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. The program buses city students to suburban districts in an effort to provide them with better educational opportunities and to create more racially diverse student bodies.

One way school districts are attempting to narrow their achievement gaps is by getting more students of color into honors and Advanced Placement classes. Newton is starting a program — modeled after one in Brookline — to support minority students and help them stay on track to take upper-level classes. Last year, Newton South High School officials grouped six nonwhite students in an AP course so they would not feel isolated or intimidated by being the only student of color in the classroom.

In Brookline, an initiative is underway to get more under­represented students on track to take calculus before they graduate. The program includes a summer preview of what students will see in math class in the upcoming year, as well as after-school tutoring.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of students of color who are enrolled in and succeeding in upper-level math classes,” said William Lupini, Brookline’s superintendent.

Brookline, along with Cambridge, is one of two school districts in the state that belong to the Minority Student Achievement Network, a coalition of diverse, mostly high-achieving school districts seeking to eliminate their achievement gaps.

Madeline Hafner, the network’s executive director, said that sometimes black and Hispanic teenagers subconsciously feel they are not the “type” of person who is right for upper-level classes.

“We have a history of, if you’re white that means you’re American, that means you’re educated. If you’re nonwhite, that means you’re not as educable, not as important,” Hafner said. “It’s every single tiny little thing. It’s who’s pretty on television. It’s who’s pretty in ads. Who do children see as astronauts? Who do they see as scientists? Who do they see as people who look like them?”

Like other Metco schools in the area, Brookline High had more black students scoring no lower than “proficient” on the MCAS than their peers statewide: 91 percent in English and 81 percent in math, compared with the statewide averages of 76 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

But, Hafner said, getting students to the “proficient” level is not aiming high enough.

“If we’re going to be getting our kids into a global economy, it’s going to be about that extra boost, not that middle level,” she said.

Carrie Weatherhead, director of a Brookline school program called Steps to Success, said some students are deeply uncomfortable being the only student of color in an upper-level class, especially classes like American history that deal with sensitive issues like slavery and segregation.

“The kids often will say that they’re made to feel that they have to be the spokesperson for their own race, and a lot of them don’t feel comfortable with that,” Weatherhead said.

Lesly Balanzar, a junior in Brookline, said she is the only student of color in her honors biology class, a situation she described as “a little intimidating.”

“I’m a little quiet in the class,” said Balanzar, who is Hispanic. “Sometimes I do get scared to speak up.”

Balanzar said she thinks the achievement gap has more to do with economic class than color, noting that some families are more able than others to afford academic camps, SAT preparation classes, and the latest electronic devices. Until she worked over the summer to save up for a laptop, she said, she had to share a home computer with her two brothers. Many of her teachers send out homework over e-mail instead of handing out paper assignments, she said.

“Some minority kids, they don’t really get their homework done because maybe they don’t have a computer at home,” Balanzar said. “They have to stay here late just to do their homework.”

Matthew Brown, a Brook­line Metco student who is black, said language and geographic barriers prevent some parents from communicating effectively with teachers and administrators, which can be a barrier to success.

Although Brown said he feels welcomed in Brookline, he also feels extra pressure to succeed because of his skin color, fueled in part by messages he receives from his parents.

“They are always telling me that people do not want me here because of my color, so that should be a bigger reason why I push to be better than them,” he said. “Because I’m a black male, that means I have to work that much harder.”

Although white students in many of the districts that participate in Metco widely outperformed their white peers statewide on last spring’s MCAS, black 10th-graders scored “advanced” at around state averages for blacks, or only slightly higher, in some of the districts.

An illustration of this point: White 10th-graders at Lincoln-Sudbury, Concord-Carlisle, and Newton’s high schools all scored “advanced” in math and English in higher numbers than white 10th-graders in Framingham; but Framingham’s share of black 10th-graders scoring “advanced” was higher in both subjects than in any of those districts.

Framingham High School principal Michael Welch, who was once a principal in Newton, said he thinks there is “more of a belief that all kids are able to achieve at high levels” in Framingham.

“Plenty of our African-American and Hispanic kids are doing quite-higher-level work,” Welch said. “I think there’s a stronger belief here that all kids are able to do that kind of work, because we see many examples of it.”

Peter Badalament, principal of Concord-Carlisle High School, acknowledged that students of color may sometimes feel isolated in his district because of the small number of Metco students. He said the district tracks the achievement gap not only with standardized testing, but by comparing grade-point averages.

Badalament said Concord-Carlisle is combating the achievement gap through a number of tactics, including requiring antiracism training for all new teachers, and providing a new study-skills course for the district’s Metco students.

However, Badalament noted that “virtually all” of the district’s Metco students graduate from the school, and that many go on to college.

“We really try to look at this not purely as a deficit model,” Badalament said. “These are very talented kids, and we don’t make assumptions that they’re necessarily going to be underperforming. There are students who do really well, and students who don’t do really well.

“They’re smart kids, and we try to play to every kid’s talent,” Badalament added. “But you can’t ignore the statistical outcomes that we’re facing.”

Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.
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