The California Department of Education recently released the 2012 Standardized Testing and Report (STAR) results, and while the state is celebrating nine straight years of student improvement on the annual statewide mathematics and English language arts exams, it appears that even the most economically gifted African American students are not on par with their White and Asian counterparts.

The data showed that statewide only 37 percent of African Americans students scored at proficient and above in English Language Arts (ELA) and only 36 percent of Black pupils scored at proficient or above in math.

Even more problematic is the fact that only 56 percent of not economically disadvantaged Black students scored proficient and above on the ELA compared to 87 percent for Asians, 78 percent for Whites and 60 percent for Hispanics.

The story is much the same in math. Only 42 percent of not economically disadvantaged Black students scored at proficient and above compared to 85 percent of Asians, and 66 percent each for Whites and Latinos.

A look at the largest high school district in Antelope Valley, Antelope Valley Union High District, finds that again the pattern is repeated. In ELA, only 37 percent of Black ninth-graders, 32 percent of 10th-graders and 27 percent of 11th-graders performed at proficient and advanced.
Of African American ninth-graders who were not economically disadvantaged, only 38 percent scored at proficient and above while 22 percent of 10th-graders and 33 percent of 11th-graders hit the mark.

The math numbers were 43 percent for 10th-graders and 16 percent of 11th-graders.

Black education experts agree that the situation is a complex, ongoing dilemma that is impacted by a number of factors.

It is also a national phenomenon, according to Quentin Lawson, executive director of the National Alliance for Black School Educators (NABSE).

Lawson points to a statement by researcher Wanda Blanchett that provides one of the most simplistic but profound reasons for discrepancies in school outcomes: “Schools continue to serve best those whom schools have always served best: the White middle and upper-middle class.”

The NABSE executive director goes on to add, “As sad as it is to say in 2012, while there are similarities across all middle-class families, much of the discretion still has to do with race, culture, and social class differences. These differences continue to be a key factor in revealing that some middle-class Blacks, as well as students from low-income families are still at the bottom of most comparative measures of progress overall.

“Therefore, it suffices to say that being Black in America and the world continues to bring additional burdens that must be overcome. Although some do not want to raise issues of race or poverty in the equation during this time when we are supposed to be in an imaginary “post-racial state” in America, realistically, many people of color, including Blacks, Browns, Native Americans, some Asians and others are in the bottom rungs of life and school measures also. As has been the history of African Americans in America, Black students continue to work against the odds. Some are successful, but many still lag behind, regardless of class distinctions.”

Lawson says a good analogy was seeing the Olympic sprinter with two prosthetic legs from South Africa who competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics 400-meter relay against those who ran with their biological legs. The celebrated fact is that he was finally given the chance to compete in the race against others who had advantages. Although as hard as he worked and trained for the final race, he placed behind most others at the finish line. In other words, his best or competitive effort and score lagged behind others, but what an accomplishment to at least be in the race.

With motivation and determination, most likely he will continue to strive to be a competitive part of the success story.

That is the plight that Black people have been facing since slavery, segregation, desegregation, and the opening of society since the Civil Rights era.

George McKenna, the storied educator who turned around the academic program at LAUSD’s Washington Preparatory High School says the reason why even middle-class Black students are faring poorly on standardized testing is a complex mixture of factors.

“This has been a historical dilemma for us,” said McKenna. “It comes down to what happens in the classroom. What are principals doing to improve classroom instruction in the subject areas they know the students are going to be tested on?”

“There’s a lot of conversation around “why are we teaching to the test; if you already know what is going to be tested, why not teach that information?” What else should you be teaching, asks McKenna pragmatically.

But the former Pasadena Unified School District superintendent does not mean that students should only be taught the test. He stressed that they should also be taught the other subjects and information in the common core curriculum.

McKenna also acknowledges that the information on standardized tests come from the dominant culture in America.

Since educators know what those things are. He believes Black students should be taught them. And they cannot be taught by teachers who ask students questions, and instead of waiting for the young people to produce the answers, give it themselves.

McKenna also believes there is a generational deep resistance within the African American culture to embracing the dominant culture.

“No other culture is as unwilling to embrace the White culture. They came here to be an American. They came over here to become Americans as defined by White people,” says McKenna, who points out that the American school system also often blames children for what they don’t bring to the classroom instead of embracing what they do bring and teaching the rest.

McKenna also talks about another phenomenon that is actually the antithesis to the idea that Blacks resist embracing White culture–some Black students who are bused out of the community are often sent out “trying to get away from us . . . .

But that creates its own challenges.

“They are not part of the community (they’re bused into). They are seen as intruders,” notes McKenna who adds that often because they do not have transportation home Black youth who are bused out cannot stay and hang out with their friends, cannot go to school functions.”

All of this paints them as outsiders.

And within the school environment itself, McKenna says there is sometimes a lack of rigor in the teaching, because instructors will accept less than the best effort from Black students because they think they are doing the young person a favor.

Debra Watkins, founder, president and executive director of the California Alliance of African American Educators (CAAAE) paints the why in bold colors–“I would say in a nutshell, it’s what the Kellogg Foundation and others have named it–structural racism.

“That is where the system in place sometimes deliberately and sometimes unconsciously allows for teacher bias against Black and Brown children.”

Watkins, pinpoints this bias as settings with low expectations for the children, and says this is not just White teachers. Black educators are guilty of this bias as well.

Watkins says these teachers don’t believe that Black kids (and Brown) can achieve at certain levels, and this causes them to interact with (the students) differently.

One example of this different interaction comes from a study by the College Board on why so few Black and Brown students take advanced placement classes. Researchers found that their teachers don’t recommend taking such classes.

At the opposite extreme, Watkins relates the story of a friend’s son, who was a ninth-grader taking honors classes. His school created a program called Ujima to help low-performing African American students feel better about themselves and improve academically.

Her friend was livid that her son was called out of his honors classes to attend the program.

Another reason Watkins sees for the lower scores of more affluent Black youth is that they are sometimes placed in an environment where they are marginalized.

“The children start to internalize the belief that they can’t do well academically, and it ends up a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Gwendolynne Cole, president of the High Desert Alliance of Black School Educators (HDABSE) like the other Black educators does not want to give a blanket overall reason about why Black pupils in Antelope Valley (like their peers around the country) are lagging.

But she does believe Black youth have some specific and unique needs that need to be addressed.

“I have to be real careful here, because I don’t want make it seem like African Americans are different from the human race. They are human with the same needs, desires, goals and aspirations. I believe our children can learn to thrive and be very productive individuals the world.”

But Cole, whose organization is an affiliate of NABSE and prides itself on having data to back up statements would go no further on these speculations.

She did say that the group expects to have information in the coming months that should shed light on the issue.

But one of HDABSE’s efforts to combat the problem is to focus on teaching parents the importance of being at the table.

Watkins of CAAAE, who just retired after working 35 years in high school, believes one solution is culturally responsive professional development of teachers.

At the same time, Watkins says African American students must be educated.

“Our kids get mad, and say ‘she doesn’t like me, I don’t like her. I’m not going to do the work.’ We have to work on the kids. They can’t take those attitudes in class, because she (the teacher) is still going to get paid, and you (the student) are still going to be sitting here in the school-into-prison-pipeline.”

Watkins points to one final consideration to ponder.

Some Black parents feel that once they enroll their children in a “better” school, the problem is solved.

But a Shaker Heights Study (and subsequent book: “Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement”) by Stanford professor John Ogbu, shows why that is a serious mistake.

“Shaker Heights is a very wealthy community in Cleveland. Parents called him in to find out why their kids were doing so poorly. What he found out was that parents were turning their kids over to racist teachers who, for the most part, didn’t care about them and were treating (students) horribly,” Watkins said.

Parents called the results crazy and disregarded the findings.

Lawson of NABSE says it may also be instructive to consider these factors as well–(1) Black middle-class status is more tenuous and sometimes mythical. But faces the constant threat of downward mobility. (2) Hip Hop has permeated deep into the African American culture and the majority of its content is skeptical of traditional school achievement, distrustful of the traditional educative process and resistant to school achievement-oriented masculine identity. For Black youth, at every GPA, being into Hip Hop is associated with higher self-esteem, but it is also associated with more problem behaviors in school. And finally (3) the new African American family structure is evolving without the cultural guidelines and values of the past, and is rife with young people, especially males, who lack an interest in education and development of one’s self to the fullest potentials, writes researcher Searetha Smith-Collins.