Report: Mich. near bottom in black student achievement

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Too few African-American students excel in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.

In a national study of African-American student achievement released Thursday, Michigan results are grim, with scores near the bottom in several crucial areas.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report, “The Path Forward: Improving Opportunities for African-American,” shows Michigan ranking among the bottom five states in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading proficiency on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The state’s proficiency rates: 5 percent in eighth-grade math, 9 percent in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and 10 percent in fourth-grade math.

For older students, Michigan also ranked among the bottom five states for high school graduation rates, at 61 percent, and in the bottom five for ACT college readiness, at 4 percent.

The report says it “puts front and center the fact that too many of our nation’s young people are failing to achieve their potential, and that African-American students are disproportionately impacted by the shortcomings in our education system.”

The NAEP is given to a “representative sample” of students in all states and 21 urban districts, including Detroit, every two years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test.

Nationally, about 139,000 fourth-graders and 136,000 eighth-graders took the 2015 NAEP reading and math exams, including about 3,000 in each grade in Michigan.

Outside of 21 urban districts, NCES does not release information about the schools that participate in the NAEP, said Stephaan Harris, a spokesman for the center.

For each of those big-city districts, 1,100 to 2,500 public school fourth-graders and 900 to 2,200 eighth-graders take the NAEP.

Among the key points in the study:

■Overall performance is low, though there are signs of improvement. For example, fourth-grade math proficiency rates among black students nationally rose from 1 percent in the early 1990s to 19 percent this year.

■College readiness among African-American students lags far behind graduation rates for the same group in many states, including Michigan.

■Many African-American students are taking challenging classes, but the numbers could be higher. In addition, the percentage of such students who pass Advanced Placement exams is low. Just 3.3 percent of black students in the class of 2014 in Michigan passed at least one AP exam during high school, according to the report.

■Too few African-American students excel in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.

On the positive side, the report says over the past 25 years, “the performance of African-American students on key academic success indicators has improved, in some cases markedly.”

The percentages of black fourth- and eighth-graders who scored proficient in math and reading on the NAEP has risen “significantly” since the 1970s, the report says, but even so, just 18 percent of African-American fourth-graders were proficient in reading on this year’s exam.

Graduation rates are up as well, to a nationwide average of 71 percent.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation executive described the disparity in student achievement as a civil rights issue and an economic issue.

“We need to remain committed to strong accountability for the academic achievement of ALL students, high standards, annual assessments (so we know who’s on track and who isn’t) and when subgroups of students fall behind, there must be interventions to help get them back on track,” said Cheryl Oldham, vice president of the foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce.

Michigan education experts and leaders said the report shows the need for urgent action to boost learning among the state’s African American children.

Percy Bates, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, called the report “a wake-up call for everyone in the state of Michigan but particularly parents and educators.”

“These results simply cannot be allowed to continue. In my view, this issue has to be placed as one of the highest priorities for our state,” Bates said. “It is time for those persons within the state to get together and make these students a clearer priority and develop programs that will assure greater academic success than we are currently seeing.”

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based think tank, said the state risks falling even farther behind unless policymakers respond to the crisis.

“Michigan has a very serious statewide student achievement problem for all groups of students, but especially African American children,” Arellano said. “Our system is neither well-organized or resourced to dramatically raise learning levels as leading states have been doing for years now. We need stronger state leadership across public and private sectors to turn this around. This is a complex problem that needs complex solutions.”

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation and a co-chair of a coalition pushing for school reform in Detroit, said the report’s findings are depressing but not shocking.

“More than 10 years ago, our state earned the distinction of having the largest achievement gap for black students in the country,” she said. “As of yet, we still have no state policies to address these disparities nor the inequities in the schools that serve these students.”

Allen concluded: “This problem is fixable if we can garner the necessary political will to make intentional and metric-based investments that values African-American students as contributors to our state’s economy and future prosperity.”

(313) 222-2296