For the first time, Seattle Public Schools officials have broken down test scores by specific home language. The recently announced results revealed a surprising trend that may have implications for policy around the district.

Share story

African-American students whose primary language is English perform significantly worse in math and reading than black students who speak another language at home — typically immigrants or refugees — according to new numbers released by Seattle Public Schools.

District officials, who presented the finding at a recent community meeting at Rainier Beach High School, noted the results come with caveats, but called the potential trend troubling and pledged to study what might be causing it.

Michael Tolley, an executive director overseeing Southeast Seattle schools, said at the meeting that the data exposed a new achievement gap that is “extremely, extremely alarming.”

The administration has for years analyzed test scores by race. It has never before broken down student-achievement data by specific home language or country of origin — it is rare for school districts to examine test scores at that level — but it is unlikely that the phenomenon the data suggest is actually new.

In fact, some national experts said the trend represented by the Seattle data is not surprising. They pointed to some studies about college attendance and achievement indicating that immigrant families from all backgrounds tend to put a larger emphasis on education than those families that have been in the country longer.

Traditional factors in low performance, such as poverty and single-parent homes, are generally shared by black immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.

The new finding may help Seattle educators more accurately pinpoint students who are struggling and figure out how to help them, School Board members said.

However, district officials said they need to study the new data further before speculating about the reasons for it or making policy changes in response.

Some community members said the administration doesn’t appear to be taking the results seriously enough.

“I saw that and I was shocked,” Rainier Beach PTSA President Carlina Brown said about the presentation. “I was shocked, and we’re not getting a sense of urgency from the district. We need a timeline. Not another committee. We need to know what they’re doing and when.”

Fresh look at data

Mark Teoh, the district’s data manager, said he has been wanting to break down student-achievement data this way for years.

His team finally started the project two months ago. First, the number-crunchers got all of last year’s state test scores in reading and math. Then they compared the scores against information provided by students each year about the languages they speak at home.

The results, although preliminary, were eye-opening:

• Only 36 percent of black students who speak English at home passed their grade’s math test, while 47 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Other black ethnic groups did even better, although still lower than the district average of 70 percent.

• In reading, 56 percent of black students who speak English passed, while 67 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Again, other black ethnic groups did better, though still lower than the district average of 78 percent.

The numbers do have significant limitations, Teoh said. That’s because they are based on home-language information that is entirely self-reported, and the data exclude English Language Learners — an optional program for students who score poorly on an English proficiency test.

Most of all, Teoh said, because the English-speaking category includes students of many black ethnic groups, it’s impossible to compare specific ethnic groups.

At the recent community meeting, much of that distinction was lost on the parents in the audience.

“It’s very alarming that students that were born right here are at the bottom of the barrel,” said Vallerie Fisher, whose daughter is a senior at Rainier Beach. “How is that possible?”

Immigrant experience

The answer to that question may lie in the culture of immigrant families, national education experts said.

Many of those families, who often were relatively wealthy and well-educated in their home countries, have strong social-support systems that emphasize education, said Mike Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Pamela Bennett, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, agreed. She conducted a study in 2009 that found that immigrant black high-school graduates attend college at a much higher rate than black or white students born in the U.S. The reason was that the immigrants had a higher socioeconomic background, she said.

But that explanation may falter when Seattle’s Somali population is considered.

Many of the Somalis, after all, did not follow a normal pattern of immigration. Their families came to the U.S. to escape their war-torn country, many by way of refugee camps. But they still did better than English-speaking African Americans on the tests.

Veronica Gallardo, the director of international programs for Seattle Public Schools, speculated that the trauma experienced by Somali families causes them to value the opportunity education provides. In addition, Somali community groups tend to prioritize education, said Alexandra Blum, who works with the Somali Community Services Coalition, a nonprofit that works to empower families in King County.

Seattle School Board member Betty Patu, who has worked for decades with community groups serving students of color, said she has noticed that all immigrant families, regardless of socioeconomic status, place high value on education.

“Their motivation is different,” she said. “When you leave your country, you come here to do something. You don’t come here just to sit around and do nothing.”

But fellow board member Harium Martin-Morris cautioned against drawing conclusions, based on such limited results, about the value specific communities place on education.

“I would be careful of over-interpreting what this data is actually saying,” he said. “It is interesting, but I hope people don’t draw the wrong conclusions.”

Racial expectations?

Another board member, Marty McLaren, has a different theory.

McLaren, a former teacher, believes that black students whose families have been in the U.S. for generations often perform poorly because schools and general societal structures have imposed a culture of low expectations on them dating back to the days of slavery.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said of the trend, which she classified as institutionalized racism. “I’ve had many of those students. They’re bright and they’re wonderful. And they’re discouraged.”

Rita Green, vice president of the Rainier Beach PTSA, said teachers don’t push black students as hard as immigrant students.

Several studies have shown that teachers’ feelings about how students will perform impact how the students actually perform.

School Board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum said the newly identified gap should serve as an argument for the importance of motivating all children, but also teaching in different ways to reach different students.

“It goes back to, how do we create a set of materials and tool kits for our teachers that will allow them to be successful with any person in any student population?” she said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.