By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Ohio students continue to improve on proficiency tests, although the gap between white students and their black and Hispanic classmates remains wide.
Thirty-eight school districts are now classified as "academic watch" or "academic emergency," the lowest of five state designations based on proficiency test scores, attendance and graduation rates for the 2003-2004 school year. The year before, 68 were in the two classifications.
At the same time, 346 districts are now in one of the top two classifications - "excellent" and "effective" - meaning they met at least 14 of 18 requirements on the state report card. In the year before, 262 hit those marks.
Overall, 107 of the 608 districts that get a report card moved up a classification, while 29 dropped. Significantly more districts also are meeting federal standards implemented by the No Child Left Behind Act.
State education Superintendent Susan Zelman attributed the success to higher expectations by teachers, the alignment of curriculums to state-developed standards, and better tracking of student performance.
A district-by-district breakdown will be released to the public today.
Mitchell Chester, assistant state superintendent for policy development, said he's concerned that many black and Hispanic students are not reaching an education level to ensure success as adults.
"Most of our students, regardless of the group that they're from, are making gains," he said. "However, there is a large gap."
On the reading section of the fourth-grade test, white students outperformed blacks by 29 percentage points.
The gap was 33 percentage points for math and 37 percentage points for science.
Results for the sixth-grade proficiency test show similar gaps. The graduation rate for black students in 2003 was 63 percent, more than 25 percentage points lower than for whites.
Across the board, Hispanic students tended to score better than blacks, but behind white students.
Sen. C.J. Prentiss, D-Cleveland, a former teacher and the legislature's most outspoken advocate for closing the achievement gap, said Ohio's numbers remain very disappointing.
"This speaks to the fact that a lot more work needs to be done," she said.
Prentiss, also a member of the task force studying a new way to fund schools, said the state must focus more money on schools with high percentages of poor students. The key, she said, is to catch students who are behind entering kindergarten for additional help.
The achievement gap remains even though black students are making improvements in test scores.
For example, black students improved 7.7 points over 2003 in fourth-grade math, while whites improved 7.1 points. In fourth-grade reading, black students improved 4 points, compared to 4.7 points for whites.
Kevin Carey, a senior policy analyst at the Education Trust, a nonprofit Washington-based group working to close the achievement gap nationally, said Ohio's numbers are mixed.
Carey said in Ohio and across the nation, schools with high poverty rates often lack good teachers. New research has shown a critical link between highly qualified teachers and student learning, he said.
"A lot of research shows the quality of the teaching force varies dramatically," he said.
Ohio, he said, is taking steps to improve that, including recent reforms based on the governor's Commission for Teaching Success and a new project where state education officials, Cleveland City Schools and the Education Trust are looking for ways to improve the teaching force in poor schools.
"Certainly, students are coming in behind, and we are strong advocates of universal preschool," he said. "But I don't think there's any reason why they can't catch up. They are in school for a long time."
State education officials on Monday also pointed to improving results of Ohio's eight largest urban districts, which have the highest concentration of minority students. Dayton is the only one in academic emergency, compared to four last year.
Six, including Cincinnati, are now in academic watch. Toledo has reached the designation of continuous improvement.
"Our urbans are clearly getting better, and we're delighted about that," Zelman said.
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