A new state math test confirms what national achievement tests have indicated for years: Black students in Nebraska public schools score woefully below their peers in math.
Fewer than one in five black 11th-graders statewide met or exceeded the state's math standards last year, the worst among the racial groups identified, according to 2010-11 Nebraska State of the Schools Report.
The results suggest bleak prospects for young blacks trying to advance to college or science and technology careers.
Jim Scheer, president of the Nebraska Board of Education, called the lagging achievement for black students "terrible." But he said even the high scoring racial groups — Asians and whites — have room to improve with fewer than two out of three 11th-graders mastering the standards.
"It's not good enough," he said.
State officials released the report Wednesday in Lincoln. Produced by the Nebraska Department of Education, it compiles test scores and demographic data from all of the state's 249 public school districts.
The state report also indicates academic achievement gaps in reading, writing and science, though those gaps are not as severe as for math. The percentage of students living in poverty, as reflected by the number of students eligible for federal lunch subsidies, grew slightly from 41.2 percent to 42.6 percent of Nebraska public school students, according to the report.
]This year's report also includes a new method of calculating four-year graduation rates. Under the method, which requires that each student be tracked individually, Nebraska's overall graduation rate dipped to 85.1 percent. Under the previous method, the state's graduation rate was 90 percent.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed said the new method will allow for easier comparisons among states since all graduation rates will be calculated in the same way. He said he still expects Nebraska's graduation rate to be in the top 10 among states nationally.
On state math scores, white students were 62 percent proficient in the 11th grade, compared with 19 percent of black 11th-graders.
The math test is part of a new series of tests being rolled out by the state. Public school kids statewide took it for the first time last school year, and this is the first time the state has made available the math scores by race and income. The multiple-choice test replaced the district-level assessments teachers used in the past to gauge math proficiency.
The former assessments, part of an accountability system the state is dismantling and replacing, let districts test and retest students. It indicated much smaller achievement gaps.
For the 2009-10 school year, for example, the math achievement gap between black and white 11th-graders was just under 7 percentage points. The new tests reveals a gap of 43 percentage points between whites and blacks; comparing black and Asian math achievement, the gap widens to 44 percentage points.
In the Omaha Public Schools, where just 11 percent of black 11th-graders met or exceeded the math standards, school board member Justin Wayne would like to see more attention paid to a problem that educators call “mobility.”
Wayne said that while race and poverty weigh on test scores, he believes the low test scores correlate more closely to mobility: kids who are abruptly changing residences and schools frequently during the school year.
“The kids who are mobile and highly mobile are the kids who are pulling down those test scores significantly,” Wayne said.
OPS officials recently laid out a new strategy to raise achievement across the district's schools. The plan emphasizes more consistent use of teaching methods that give more individual attention to students, principal visits to classrooms to coach teachers, as well as greater use of new diagnostic tools to identify specific gaps in students' skills.
Wayne said he also plans to push for more sharing of student information between schools and nonprofit groups that provide after-school and Saturday programs for struggling students.
Bellevue Public Schools reviewed its math curriculum last year and is implementing new curriculum in grades K-12 this school year, said Superintendent Frank Harwood.
Half of Bellevue's tested students were proficient on the state math test.
With the changes, students will learn math concepts before being assessed on those topics in the state tests, he said.
“We were teaching things at different grades than the state was assessing things,” Harwood said.
Education Commissioner Breed said that this year's schools report does not include information on how districts fared under federal accountability laws because the data is still being verified. He said he expects to release that information, which will include whether schools met No Child Left Behind targets later this fall.
-- World-Herald staff writers Paul Goodsell and Jonathon Braden contributed to this report.