Score Gap Initiative Sparks Debate

Plan to look at scores by race raises criticism

A week after the president of Cambridge’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter compared the Cambridge public schools to an “apartheid educational system,” concerns continue to overshadow a new benchmarking initiative aimed at closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.

The new initiative would collect data on student performance from standardized tests in an effort to identify gaps across subject areas.

According to Cambridge public school administration officials, the new benchmarking system is necessary to raise the level of achievement of Cambridge students and give the district the information it needs to address educational disparities.

“We’re committed to closing the achievement gap in any way,” said Justin Martin, the director of the Cambridge schools’ public information office. “The benchmarks are a way of tracking areas of improvement.”

Despite the officials’ optimism, Cambridge school principals expressed mixed feelings about the implementation of the new system.

“The mark does need to be set at 100 percent for every student,” said Cambridge Rindge and Latin School principal Dr. Sybil Knight. “I certainly understand that perspective in making sure that all kids have equity in reaching academic goals.”

Ronald F. Ferguson, the director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI), a research group that focuses on reducing performance disparities between minority and white students, also said that benchmarking programs raise difficult questions.

“Talking openly about race and race differences can be problematic because it’s embarrassing to the people on the bottom end of the comparison,” Ferguson said. “If it’s done in a way that has a connotation that it might be a permanent or fixed position, then it’s particularly stigmatizing.”

But Marla Perez-Selles, the principal of Amigos Elementary School, a school with a high number of poor students located near Mather House, said that the benchmarking system will allow her school to set achievement goals.

“I think it gives the school a very clear picture of where we are and where we need to be heading,” said Amigos Elementary School principal Marla Perez-Selles. “I really feel that it’s a good thing.”

According to faculty at Harvard, the ethnic achievement gap is not just a local concern.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there’s a national movement building to raise achievement among all students but especially among members of groups that traditionally perform at lower levels,” said Ferguson, who is also a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

The Harvard Achievement Gap Initiative includes other KSG faculty members and Graduate School of Education professors.

Ferguson acknowledged the “uncomfortable comparison” involved in the benchmarking initiative, but said that the program may be necessary to fix the disparities.

“We need some ways to get people’s attention and to cultivate a sense of urgency about addressing achievement gaps,” he said.

Cambridge scored 253rd out of 278 districts statewide on the 2005 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) 10th grade English exam. It scored just slightly better—251st—on the MCAS 10th grade math exam.

—Staff writer Laura A. Moore can be reached at lamoore@fas.harvard.edu.