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Race and the predictability of student achievement

 A couple posts ago, I wrote about the predictability of student achievement and the need for teachers to interrupt the gap in academic performance.

What’s becoming clear in my AP English class is how starkly race plays into that predictability.

Most Mondays, my students write a timed essay in class. Then they type their essay before 11 p.m. on Google Docs. This deadline is so that their writing mentor, peer mentor, and I can review it on Tuesday. Getting the essay on Google Docs begins an intense revision process and solid opportunities for writing growth.

On Monday night, in a class of 23 students, four didn’t make the deadline. All are African American. There are six African American students in the class.

To quickly analyze the data:

  • All students who didn’t meet the deadline are African American,
  • Two-thirds of African Americans in the class did not meet the deadline.

It would be one thing if these students were “outliers,” but they’re not. They work hard and want to do well. After all, they chose to be in AP English.

Moreover, they’ve done well in past English classes, and teachers have praised their reading and writing skills.

Usually, my analysis, when seeing such stark academic data, is to say that I need to build better relationships across difference. This time, however, I believe it’s something else. Although I could be wrong, I’m pretty sure the students would report a strong connection with me.

Another interpretation is that it’s the digital divide. Yet all four students now have computers at home and have demonstrated their ability to handle the other tech challenges the class presents.

It’s definitely something else, and it’s my job to figure it out. If I don’t, then I’ll come to expect less from my African American students. I’ll come to predict a gap in their performance. And if that ever happens, if I no longer believe, and if my students know that I no longer believe, the students have no chance. 

3 comments

  1. tony

    Sounds familiar. Here are a couple other possible answers to your great questions:
    1) Do the African American students who did not do this assignment believe that typing a paper they already wrote out (and so maybe feel finished) is worth while? Do they know who the tutor is and trust the feedback will be useful?
    2) Do these African American students who did not do the work believe they will eventually pass the test? When I taught the class I identified a gap between those who believed they had a shot to pass it and those who did not – the second group barely did enough to pass the class (and in a couple cases, did not pass the class).
    3) Might stereotype threat be at play here? I know they have a good relationship with you and do well academically in general – but the AP class (the authors read, the cultural discourse of the exam, the style of writing called for – is all very hegemonic) and I wonder if they feel, on some level, that they are not expected to pass?
    You are great – I love the questions you ask. Your students are lucky to have you. I wonder what interventions you can do before the next round to improve the number of students who meet this expectation.

  2. Mark Isero

    Tony, thank you for your thoughts. I’m going to do all the things you suggest. It’s important to dig deeper, ask why, get to the root.

    On a separate note, I’m finding out how quickly students can grow. The writing this week is by far better now than it was Week 1.

Please share your brilliant insights!