Government Schools Are Failing Minorities
by Ari Armstrong , August 26, 2001 (posted)
The scores are in, and they show the government schools are failing our minority students.
Even though the ACT college entrance exam competes with the SAT, the State of Colorado granted a contract for every high school junior in the state to take the ACT. Not surprisingly, between last year, when taking the test was optional, and this year, the average ACT score fell from 21.5 to 18.6.
What's disturbing, though, is that the average composite score for black students was 15.2, and the score for Mexican American/Chicano students was 14.2. Meanwhile, students in the top Colorado schools scored over 22.
The ACT consists of four sub-tests: English, math, reading, and science reasoning. Each of those tests is scored from 1-36, then the four sub-scores are averaged for the "composite" score. In order to keep things simple, I'll discuss only the math section.
There are 60 math problems on the ACT test, for which students are given an hour. Then the "raw" score is converted to the scaled score. A (scaled) score of 20 is about average; a score of 30 is really good. It's easy to misunderstand the implications of test scores. A score of 15 does NOT mean a student answered three-fourths as many problems correctly as a student who scored a 20.
Using a recent test as an example, here's what the scores really mean. On the ACT, you're supposed to guess blindly whenever you don't know how to do a problem. Every math problem lists five multiple-choice answers. Unlike the SAT, the ACT does not deduct points for wrong answers. So the upshot is that you should be able to guess blindly on the whole math test and get 12 problems correct, which translates to a scaled score of 13. As you can imagine, the jump from 13 to 15 is not very impressive.
In fact, a student need only work 6 problems correctly, then guess blindly on the other 54 problems and with luck pick up an additional 11 points, for a total of 17 points. On the sample test, 17-19 raw points translates to a scaled score of 15.
Did you get that? A student need only correctly solve 6 problems (out of 60) in an hour to get a score of 15. And it's not like the ACT is written at a highly advanced level. While some of the problems are quite difficult, some of them are also fairly easy. Here are a couple of examples:
1. If 2x-3=12, then x=?
9. The average of 6 numbers is 4.5. If each of the numbers is decreased by 4, what is the average of the 6 new numbers?
Remember, you have to work 6 of these problems correctly in an hour (and guess on the rest) to earn a scaled score of 15 on the math. By contrast, to earn a scaled score of 20 you need to work 24 problems correctly, guess on the other 36 to bring in 7 guessing points, for a total of 31 correct answers. The student who earns a 20 needs to work FOUR TIMES the number of problems correctly than the student who earns a 15. And those problems get a lot harder than the easiest 6 on the test.
Of course, it wouldn't be fair to blame only the schools for the relatively poor performance of some black and Hispanic students. Because of income disparities and language barriers, some students have a harder time getting ahead in their studies.
It is precisely because some black and Hispanic students need more help that they should be freed from the government's monopoly school system. Let's face it -- most rich kids are going to get a good education no matter where they go to school. (However, wealth isn't everything: any student with lots of books at home and dedicated parents is going to do pretty well regardless of school.)
Kids who are better-off don't suffer from the inherent problems of government-run education as much as disadvantaged kids do. Even though most teachers at most government-run schools are caring and competent, the institutionalized bureaucracy makes it hard for those teachers to be effective.
There's a reason why businesses run by politicians tend to do poorly. The incentives are all wrong. Politicians get to spend more money regardless of results -- in fact, often worse results lead to more spending. Free-market schools, on the other hand, must perform or parents will take their children elsewhere.
If you're satisfied that the average black and Hispanic student can solve 6 relatively easy math problems correctly in an hour, then keep voting for the status quo. If you want disadvantaged students to have the same opportunities rich kids get, start thinking about ways to break up the monopoly government-run education system and empower parents to choose the schools that work best.