Are black students lacking basic skills?

OPINION - Across the country, the achievement gap between white students and black students persists...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

About 90 years ago, one-quarter of service members drafted to serve in World War I could not read. As a result, American Education Week was founded to urgently boost American literacy. Today, it’s critical that we continue this focus on reading skills.

This month’s reading results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” reveals some progress on student performance by scores and its three achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.

In fourth grade, the percentage of black students at each of those levels was higher in 2011 than in 1992. And for eighth grade, black students had higher percentages at Basic and Proficient over this same time period. At both grades, reading scores were higher in 2011 than in 2009 for black, white, and Hispanic students.

However, there is an alarming fact seen in NAEP reading: 51 percent of black fourth-graders and 41 percent of black eighth-graders fall below Basic, which indicates partial mastery of knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at each grade level. How can any student reading below a Basic level — regardless of race or ethnicity — be prepared to learn in other subjects?

Across the country, the achievement gap between white students and black students persists. On NAEP reading in both grades, that gap is 25 points. It’s a reduction compared to what we saw in 1992, but that’s not much of a victory.

This isn’t just an education or economic issue. This is a moral issue.

NAEP is more than just a progress report. It also makes connections between some student actions and higher performance. Fourth-graders who say they read for fun almost every day score higher than their peers who don’t. Eighth-graders who have more frequent class discussions score higher than other students.

In December, NAEP will release detailed reading results for fourth- and eighth-graders from 21 large urban school districts. The majority of students in each of these districts are black, Hispanic, or from lower-income families. These 21 districts are led by courageous superintendents willing to draw attention to the academic progress of their districts, despite the fact that for most of them their students’ scores may chronically fall below the national average. We all need to take a cue from them and examine closely what we can do to better serve our children.

If our nation is ever going to close achievement gaps and improve performance, we need to do more than just measure where we stand. We need to take these results and use them to inform ways that our nation’s students can make academic gains. We need to adapt in every way possible — our curriculum, instruction, policies, and resources — to change the status quo in response to this data. We know from NAEP that there are lessons to be learned.

The question is: Are we willing to once and for all make a difference for our students?