Washington ranks second worst in the country for the performance gap between white and black students, according to an analysis from the state Board of Education.

Share story

Never let it be said that no one reads the newspaper.

An op-ed last December by Urban League President Pamela Banks put the problem of Washington’s yawning gap between black and white student achievement so starkly that the state Board of Education scrambled to do some fact-checking.

What they found was profoundly disturbing. Washington ranks second-worst in the nation for narrowing the yawning gulf in  performance between black and white students.

“It’s absolutely true,” said Andrew Parr, senior policy analyst for the board, who studied scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) between 2003 and 2013 for his analysis.

But there’s a wrinkle. As a group, black students here actually do better when compared with African-American kids in other states — performing fifth-highest in reading as eighth graders, and seventh-highest in math.

That sunnier interpretation was not received as cause for celebration among board members.

“This was not viewed as a good thing by any means,” Parr said. “The word I heard used most was disturbing. Even though it wasn’t a shock, it was disturbing to everyone that these gaps exist and are not declining.”

Better performance by all students is, ironically, contributing to the problem. As the board put it: “For the white-black performance gap to narrow, gains by the black student group must exceed gains made by the white student group.”

Concentrating on these divisions may, in fact, obscure the true driver behind those numbers.

“In my opinion, poverty is really the key here,” said Parr, who next plans to compare the performance of black children in poverty to that of poor whites.

“I think you’ll see that gap there is a lot smaller — if it exists at all,” he said. “Yes, we have a widening black-white achievement gap, but there are other factors that might have more of an effect than race.”