The past four months have brought to light an epidemic entirely unrelated to Covid-19 but equally as unsettling: innumeracy.
Innumeracy is our inability to process statistics in a rational way. Which is scary because in dealing with issues of class, race and gender, these numbers tell a story that reveal a pattern of inequity that extends far beyond a single, highly publicized tragedy. Like a well-written novel, numbers tell stories. Sometimes they even tell lies.
In college, I studied Biology and English. People are usually surprised by this combination; it’s the pineapple on pizza of college double majors. English taught me to be persuasive. Biology taught me to ask questions, to test my assumptions, and to question perceptions.
When people argue that we don’t live in a racist society, what they usually mean is, “I don’t think most white people hate black people.” And they’re right. Most white people don’t go about their day actively hating black people. Rather, most white people go about their day passively enjoying a system that was “built” for them to succeed. That’s the true essence of racism.
As a high school teacher, I worked in schools whose doors were kept open (or closed) based on our growth on the ACT. Said a different way, our continued funding was in part dependent on how our kids performed on a three-hour exam.
Certainly other factors were used to measure our success rate, but ACT scores weighed heavily on my heart. In my five years with my charter, I taught only two white students, and I began to think deeply about the relationship between race, class and education.
The truth is, students receive a vastly different education based on the neighborhood they’re born in and the color of their skin. This is a fact. This report from the NCES shows the disparity in ACT scores based on gender, race, and ethnicity.
In a society where everyone receives an equal education, we’d expect that breaking down the data by race and sex wouldn’t reveal any differences. That’s the hypothesis. This hypothesis proves true in the case of gender. Since 1995, breaking down average ACT scores by gender reveals that male and female averages lie within 1/10 or .1 points of one another.
That said, when you break down the scores by race, the difference is almost five points. Which maybe seems small to you, so let me put that number in perspective. On average, a student grows about one point per year on the ACT. One point represents a year’s worth of work and growth at an average school.
Let me make this more clear. Black students are graduating four to five years behind their white peers. What’s worse is that these numbers haven’t changed since 1995.
When our black and brown students graduate less ready for college, there is a flaw in the system--not the student. To truly address racial inequality in America, we must first address educational inequality. We know that race and intelligence are entirely unrelated. We need to provide teachers with quality curriculaum, train them to motivate students, and give them ways to respond to data efficiently. We need to create accountability systems that make administrators, teachers, students and parents key players in students’ success. We need to adapt our curriculum to reflect the needs of a changing world. We need to use technology in a smart effective way.
At the end of the day, ACT scores are not a comprehensive metric of a students’ knowledge. There are many other data points that help to give a complete picture of the quality of one’s education, and I’m in no way suggesting we put all our time, money and resources into standardized test prep.
What I am saying is that for years, we’ve failed students of color in this country. Until a breakdown of scores by race shows no significant difference, we can’t say that all students emerge into a working world on equal footing.