Press Release

Linda Murray, Ph.D. Superintendent-in-Residence Education Trust—West

Testimony before the California Legislative Black Caucus Informational Hearing on Closing the Achievement Gap: Challenges and Opportunities for African American Students in California Public Schools

May 5, 2010

“Chairman Swanson, Vice Chairman Price and esteemed Members of the Caucus, on behalf of my colleagues at the Education Trust—West, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. We realize you have many important issues to address as you work through a busy legislative session. I appreciate your consideration of our recommendations as part of your education policy agenda.

Despite federal, state and local efforts to close achievement gaps and improve African-American student performance, these gaps remain substantial and pervasive. Years of research and data have demonstrated inequities within the education system.

Low-income students and students of color are more likely to be taught by inexperienced and out-of-field teachers. The schools they attend are disproportionately impacted by teacher and administrator turnover, receive fewer resources, and are often plagued by a culture of low expectations. Sadly, disheartening achievement statistics have become all-too-familiar.

From the earliest tested grade, African-American students lag behind their white peers in English and mathematics proficiency. Across the state, only 50% of African-American fourth graders are proficient in English Language Arts, compared to 78% of white students. This gap actually grows wider and proficiency rates plummet as our students progress through school.

Despite some improvement in proficiency rates for students across California, less progress has been made in closing gaps. Since 2003, the gap between African-American students and their white peers in fourth grade has narrowed by less than one point per year. Even more disturbing, achievement gaps in middle and high school have grown even larger in English and
Algebra I. By eleventh grade, only 25% of African-American students are proficient in English and the black-white gap increases to 30 percentage points. Just 16% of African-American middle and high school students are proficient in Algebra I, and a mere 12% are proficient in Algebra II.1 The unfortunate reality is that the achievement gap persists no matter what measure you use.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require some form of post-secondary education. With our rapidly changing economy, the wage gap based on educational attainment will increase. College readiness is of critical importance to the educational and future employment opportunities of California’s African-American youth.

Yet, again the data reveals that our education system is opening the door to college for only a select group of students, marginalizing low-income students and students of color. African-American students enroll and gain proficiency in rigorous courses, including advanced mathematics, science, and AP courses at much lower rates than their peers. Only 23% of African-American students in California graduate meeting the A-G course requirement to make them eligible to apply to the UC/CSU system. This is roughly half the rate of their white peers at 40%. There is significant variation in A-G grad rates between districts across California. In Palo Alto Unified, 75% of white students graduate meeting UC/CSU A-G requirements, while only 10% of African-American graduates in Vallejo City Unified meet these basic requirements.

Shocking gaps also exist between subgroups within one district. For example, in Berkeley Unified, 82% of white students meet UC/CSU A-G requirements, compared to only 28% of African-American students. On the Early Assessment Program (EAP) test, just 8% of African-American 11th graders demonstrate English proficiency at the “college-ready” level. Consequently, these data have implications for our African-American youth and the state of California.

African-American students represent just 3% of the UC and 6% of the CSU undergrad populations, while they represent 8% of California’s college-age population (18-24). In the last 8 years, growth in the UC and CSU African-American population has not kept pace with the growth of the African-American college-aged population. With our rapidly-changing economy, the number of jobs available to adults with a high school diploma or less is expected to significantly decrease. Currently, African-American adults who complete a bachelor’s degree earn approximately $19,500 more per year and have a less likelihood of being unemployed, than African-American adults with only a high school diploma. This figure is even more pronounced for African-American males at approximately $23,000 more per year. Again, more evidence that the gap is persistent no matter what measure you use. However, it does not have to be this way.

Despite these sobering statistics, we find that there are reasons to be optimistic. Some schools and districts are overcoming hurdles and challenging the status quo. Schools like Baldwin Hills Elementary School in Los Angeles and Grass Valley Elementary School in Oakland are over 85% African-American, and they boast API scores roughly 150 points higher than the state average for African-American students (822 and 824, respectively). At Victoriano Elementary School in Val Verde Unified, 93% of African-American fourth graders reached proficiency in English, growing 65 percentage points in 6 years. At the high school level, places like Oakland Unified are making progress and have surpassed the state average with African-American A-G graduation rates at 31%.9 During my eleven-year tenure as Superintendent of San Jose Unified School District, we raised our graduation requirements so that all students had access to the A-G sequence in high school.

The first class graduated under these requirements in 2002, and we now have eight years of evidence that higher standards and college preparatory courses for all students do not result in lower graduation rates or higher dropout rates as many feared. Low-income students and students of color now have full access to the college preparatory curriculum. Insidious practices such as tracking a disproportionate number of low-income students and students of color into low-level, dumbed-down courses have been eliminated. Student grades have not declined due to the higher level of rigor and more students earn the grades required to be eligible for entrance to the UC and CSU systems than ever before. Many other districts are now following suit. San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego have passed board resolutions to implement the A-G course sequence as the default graduation requirement in their districts, and many smaller districts are pursuing this path as well.

On a national level, 21 states now mandate college and career ready graduation requirements. In these states and in California’s most enlightened districts, there will no longer be barriers to African American, Latino, and other  underrepresented groups accessing the curriculum that truly prepares them for postsecondary success. The high school diploma, that for far too many years, has held an empty promise of a bright future, is finally being made meaningful for those lucky enough to be in states, districts and schools that see rigorous high school coursework as a gateway to opportunity rather than a gatekeeper.

Data from these schools and districts demonstrate that public schools in California can educate all students to high levels, regardless of their racial or economic background. More importantly, the lesson we learn from these schools is that California must not accept low performance and minimal growth among schools serving students of color, and must learn from the effective strategies and practices exemplified by these successful schools and districts.

The Education Trust—West believes that non-school factors, including race, poverty and zip code do not determine failure or success in the classroom. Rather that equitable access to a rigorous and high-quality education is what determines success. It is imperative that California address the specific needs of African-American students by taking on a series of reforms that will target inequities and increase access to a curriculum that prepares them for college and career. African-American students that graduate from California’s high schools must have every opportunity to pursue higher education if they choose, as well as have access to good careers.
I am leaving you with the most compelling evidence The Education Trust—West has gathered indicating how our educational system continues to disproportionately fail them. If we maintain the status quo, a vast number of the 455,000 African-American students in California’s public schools will be shut out of the opportunity to master grade-level content, develop critical thinking and reasoning skills, gain exposure and knowledge about diverse subject matter, and will be underprepared for postsecondary opportunities. This is unacceptable and shameful. It is time to act.

We respectfully ask the California Legislative Black Caucus to consider the following set of recommendations:
College and Career

  • Guarantee all students have access to college and career-ready coursework.
  • Provide students with the additional supports and interventions necessary for success in these courses.
  • Require rigorous, standards-based, data-driven instruction.
  • Advocate for culturally-responsive curriculum that reflects the diversity of our state.


  • Hold California’s secondary schools accountable for preparing all students for a full-range of postsecondary opportunities, including college and career.

Quality Teachers and Leaders

  • Require the implementation of comprehensive assessment and evaluation procedures to identify effective teachers and school leaders.
  • Ensure the equitable distribution of high-quality teachers and school leaders in high-poverty, high-minority schools.

Learn From Successes

  • Create opportunities to recognize successful schools, districts, school leaders and teachers who are closing the achievement gap.
  • Provide incentives to replicate promising practices.

Let me conclude by again thanking you for the opportunity to be here. As California’s leading organization working to forever close achievement and opportunity gaps, pre-K through college, I want you to know how deeply committed The Education Trust—West is to partnering with you. Together we can work to ensure the success of African-American students in California’s schools.

I am pleased to answer questions.”