Dramatic Racial Disparities in Reading and Math Proficiency Demonstrate Urgent Need for Broad Policy Change

September 20, 2023
Blog Post

By DC Action on September 20, 2023

Combatting discrimination and racism, along with publicly funded early childhood, out-of-school-time, and other supportive programs can transform opportunities and outcomes for District children.

According to recent PARCC assessment results published by the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE):

  • 23% of Black students and 32% of Latinx students showed proficiency in reading, compared to 82% of their white classmates
  • 11% of Black students and 19% of Latinx students demonstrated proficiency in math, compared with 75% of white peers

In addition to the PARCC results, the American Community Survey just released their latest findings, which highlight the persistence of racialized child poverty, which plays a major factor in driving the achievement gap.

These numbers reflect glaring disparities that can be traced to deeply rooted disinvestment and other policies that are the result of systemic racism, and require new and targeted resources and policy changes to close the academic achievement gap.

Anti-Poverty Measures Benefit Students 

Socioeconomic status can impact a child’s education. For every racial group, proficiency rates are lower for those categorized as “economically disadvantaged” versus those who aren’t. Because of the impact of historic and ongoing systemic racism, Black students are far more likely than their white peers to be subject to the hurdles posed by poverty.

If students are living in overcrowded households, or with adults who are stressed by financial uncertainty, or are going hungry, it’s a lot harder to focus in school. For example, according to OSSE’s data, schools got just 7 percent of students experiencing homelessness to proficiency in math in 2023 compared to 23 percent of students not experiencing homelessness. Policies and programs to address housing insecurity and family poverty (e.g. the child tax credit) reduce the hurdles that children face to their education.

The data show that poverty is one major factor in which racism impacts students’ educational outcomes. We must address child poverty if we are going to close the achievement gap, along with other forms of systemic racism. In fact, white students in District schools categorized as economically disadvantaged were proficient in reading and math at far higher rates than Black and Latinx students not in the same category.

Quality Early Care and Education Programs Build a Critical Foundation for Children

Research clearly shows huge amounts of brain development during the time between birth and age three, and therefore the parenting, caregiving, education, and environment infants and toddlers receive and are exposed to during that time lays the foundation for how they perform in school later on. But, in the District, quality early education can cost upwards of $2,000 per month. Expectant and new parents are given few supports unless they know how to seek them out and can pay for them. Similarly, little consideration, credit, or compensation is given to early childhood educators who are literally–along with families–given the most responsibility for nurturing  developing brains.

Fully funding the Birth-to-Three Act, which includes public funding to help families pay for child care and a variety of programs to bolster the health and well-being of babies, toddlers, and their families, is necessary. Expanding home visiting programs which help expectant and new parents navigate the challenges of parenthood and access the skills and resources they need to raise healthy children, is a must.

Afterschool and Summer Enrichment Programs Provide Mentorship, Skill Building, and More

While reading and math skills are foundational for college, work, and life, they’re far from the only skills that matter for young people, and tests may be an imperfect measure even of those skills. It’s important that in our efforts to address the galling disparities we see in these PARCC results that we don’t inadvertently exacerbate gaps in other types of educational opportunity. Students of all races and economic circumstances should have access to a well-rounded, rigorous curriculum that allows them to explore a range of subjects so they can discover and pursue their passions. Outside of school hours, afterschool and summer programs that give students exposure to music, visual and theater arts, civic engagement, poetry, and more, can help students explore the world, cultivate new skills and talents, and improve their engagement with school. Fully funding afterschool and summer programs for all families who want access is one step towards ensuring more equitable educational opportunities.

While there were minor improvements for all students compared to the first year schools returned to in-person learning, the gaps are so massive and the improvement so minor that at this rate it would take generations to close the gaps. These numbers are staggering. But they’re also a reminder to keep pushing for equitable educational opportunities for all our young people.