Performance disparities in schools reflect socioeconomic differences

Check out the Skiff’s full report on urban education

Less than four miles from the TCU campus, Arlington Heights High School boasts students who score above the state’s average on the SAT, ACT and advanced placement tests.

Armed with a plethora of student organizations and advanced placement classes, the students are given the opportunity to make the best use of their academic achievements.

In contrast, less than 10 miles east of Arlington Heights, education is a different story.

With zero percent of its students scoring at least an 1110 on the SAT or 24 on the ACT, Polytechnic High School’s students are not prepared for college, according to state standards.

Statistically, Polytechnic students – and others in similar economic situations – will not graduate from high school with the skills needed to attend the private university just minutes away.

Polytechnic and Arlington Heights provide just one example of disparities among local schools.

Polytechnic is an urban school, which Jennifer Brooks, director of TCU’s Center for Urban Education, defines as a low socioeconomic and/or predominantly minority school.

Students at such schools have lower test scores, are less likely to go to college and are less prepared for college.

“Due to the fact that they are limited in their resources, they don’t have the same opportunity for success,” said Patricia Williams, a counselor at Polytechnic High School.

According to the Center for Urban Education, a 9-year-old growing up in a low-income community is three grade levels behind someone of the same age growing up in a high-income community. On average, those who graduate from a high school in a low-income community will only be able to read and do math at the level of eighth-graders in high-income communities, Brooks said. In Tarrant County, state records show, 83.2 percent of public school students are minorities – 26.3 percent black and 56.9 percent Hispanic. Additionally, the Fort Worth Independent School District classifies 71.3 percent of its more than 79,000 students as economically disadvantaged.

At Polytechnic High School, one of FWISD’s lowest-income schools, more than 70 percent of its students are labeled as economically disenfranchised by the TEA.

At the same time, Polytechnic High School had 29 percent of its ninth-grade students and 21 percent of its tenth-grade students pass all sections of the TAKS test in 2007. In contrast, Arlington Heights, a predominantly white high school, with 33 percent identified as being economically disadvantaged, had more than 50 percent of ninth- and tenth-graders pass all subjects on the TAKS and more than 70 percent of eleventh-graders pass all subjects.

“These students have lives that place stress on them academically,” Williams said. “It is all a result of their socioeconomics.”

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, most black and Hispanic students will not go on to college.

Ready for college?

Of those students from urban schools who do go to college, many enter ill-prepared because of their previous education.

“Students were force-fed a simplistic academic meal consisting of basic, almost elementary English, little to no math and science, and I think the school offered a total of five AP courses,” said Filicia Hernandez, a sophomore criminal justice major at TCU, about her Fort Worth high school, Diamond Hill Jarvis.

At Diamond Hill, almost 80 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 20 percent of its high school graduates are “college-ready,” according to the Texas Education Agency.

A student’s “college readiness” is determined by indicators such as advanced placement test scores, and SAT and ACT scores, said Leslie Hughes, a TEA representative. The statistics are submitted by school districts during the fall and the spring to provide snapshots of a school’s performance, she said.

TCU student Carolyn Castellanos, a sophomore engineering major, said her classes at Diamond Hill High school did not prepare her for TCU either.

“Some of my classes at TCU were very challenging, like calculus,” said Castellanos, who, like Hernandez, is in TCU’s Community Scholars program, which recruits and mentors students from predominantly minority high schools in the area. “Coming in to TCU was definitely a challenge at first.”

Diamond Hill was one of five Fort Worth Independent School District high schools rated academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency for 2006-2007.

Nationwide, 47 percent of white SAT test takers in 2002 had taken trigonometry in high school compared with 38 percent of black test takers, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Additionally, more than a quarter of white test takers had taken calculus in high school compared with 14 percent of black students.

According to, in 2003, black test takers scored about 100 points lower on each section than did white students. White students also outscored Hispanics by about 80 points.

“One of the things that we are finding as we look at tests and other things taken in predominantly black schools is that they tend to have lower scores in certain subjects,” Brooks said. “So, it means working and making sure that they have teachers who are qualified and have experiences to make them successful.”

In urban schools, education is more about doing worksheets than engaging students in intellectual dialogue, said Darron Turner, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at TCU.

Hernandez remembers doing worksheets at Diamond Hill.

“Part of my day was going to AP calculus, where the few seniors in the class were given Sudoku puzzles to play while the juniors filled out TAKS math worksheets,” Hernandez said. “Since then, at TCU, I have had to retake calculus three times.”

Brooks said the disparity in test scores directly results from the disparity in what is available to the students educationally.

Economic pressures

The fewer educational options for students relates to the limited resources available to lower-income schools and the families they serve. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 60 percent of urban students are economically disenfranchised and participate in federal free- or reduced- meal programs.

According to federal guidelines, students can qualify for free- or reduced-meal programs if they are between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, which was between $28,845 and $38,203 for a family of four. To live comfortably in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a family of four would need a household income of $44,911, according to the Public Policy Priority Web site.

“Many of the children in urban schools come from families that don’t have economic resources,” said Cecilia Silva, associate professor of education.

These students go home facing about as many issues as they face within the classrooms.

“If you are in a home where the lights are not on or in a home where you do not have food to eat for dinner, often your thought will be on ‘I am hungry’ rather than ‘I need to do this math homework,'” Brooks said. “We have to find how we can meet these basic needs and then go and meet the academic needs.”

Parental involvement

The lack of resources does not have to do with parents’ not wanting to provide but with having more pressing needs to meet, Brooks said.

“Children from higher socioeconomic communities, based on their parents’ having additional money, tend to have experiences that people from lower economic communities don’t get,” Brooks said. “They travel, they have books in the home, they go to the library, they have people who talk to them. They probably, in their room, have everything they can think of.”

Students from lower socioeconomic areas also move more frequently, a pattern that has been linked to lower achievement, higher dropout rates and behavior problems, according to a report prepared by Chester Hartman, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. These students also have less access to adults who can talk to them on an elevated intellectual level, according to the National Center for Urban Statistics.

Just as parents are not always available at home, they also are not always involved in the schools.

According to a study conducted in New Jersey in 2000, 20 percent of suburban parents compared with 44 percent of urban parents felt unwelcome to participate in their child’s schools.

Researcher Kathy Hoover-Dempsey at Vanderbilt University found three factors that contributed to the lower parental involvement in low-income areas.

First, parents perceive themselves as outside of the school system and feel it is the school’s responsibility to do the teaching.

“In general, many parents have not themselves had positive experiences,” Hoover-Dempsey said. “The minute quantity they have had is negative, which is not helpful for things.”

Second, parents are more likely to visit and participate in their child’s school activities when they believe they can make a difference in their child’s education.

“If parents weren’t successful in school, they probably don’t have a deep reservoir of things they can think of to do that will have an effect,” Hoover-Dempsey said. “They might feel like the education is out of their realm of expertise.”

And, some schools are more welcoming than others, and the extent to which schools make parents feel comfortable and valued contributes to the adults’ participation in their children’s education.

“In low-income urban areas, parents don’t get specific invitations from teachers or school to participate,” Hoover-Dempsey said. “Their inactivity it often manifested in comments like, ‘I really would help … if I knew what to do.'”

Schools serving low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhoods must make greater efforts to welcome families because those are the parents who often feel excluded because of differences in their ethnicity, income and culture, Hoover-Dempsey said.

Brooks said schools need to ensure they have programs in place to help link what’s going on in the classroom with what happens at home.

“It is important to make sure that we have programs in the schools so that there is another resource to help administrators and teachers to bring in a strong parent-teacher association,” Brooks said.

Students who have involved parents tend to have fewer behavioral problems and better academic performance, and are more likely to complete secondary school than students whose parents are not involved, according to data from Child Trends, a national nonprofit organization.

“It is not about walking into the classroom and seeing if students have their math books,” Brooks said. “It is about making sure other problems are addressed.”