Closing the gap: a group counseling approach to improve test performance of African-American students.
This article evaluated the impact of a group counseling intervention on African-American students' achievement rates during the spring administration of high-stakes testing at a rural high school in Georgia. Eighty percent of eligible students who participated in the intervention received passing scores on the four sections tested during the spring administration of the Georgia High School Graduation Tests (GHSGT), and all participating students received passing scores on the English Language Arts and Math sections of the GHSGT. Additionally, the achievement gap between African-American students and White students on the Enhanced Math narrowed during the 2007-2008 testing period, with 63.2% of African-American students achieving pass rates as compared to 70.5% of White students. The pass rate increased from the 38. 7% pass rate among African-American students from the previous school year, indicating that the intervention was successful in improving pass rates on high-stakes testing. Implications for professional school counselors include utilizing the practice of group counseling and disaggregating data to promote achievement among underachieving student subsets.
Due in part to provisions of the No Child Left Behind legislation (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) accountability measures, inequities in school achievement and attainment have come to the forefront in the U.S. public education system. Achievement data collected through various sources suggest that students of color and students from economically disadvantaged families are underachieving at alarming rates when compared to their White and economically advantaged peer groups (Education Trust, 2005). A number of contextual forces have been proposed as possible contributors to achievement disparities. Howard and Solberg (2006) suggested that these social and developmental influences may include racism, poverty, family involvement, access to quality education and just educational practices (i.e., tracking), and personal and cultural identity development (i.e., stereotype threat). Regardless of origin, educators must balance accountability mandates and the demands of high-stakes testing with professional and ethical responsibilities to provide appropriate educational opportunities that best serve the needs of all students in public schools.
Anderson, Medrich, and Fowler (2007) purported that discourse on the achievement gap has historically focused on how well African-American students have performed nationally on standardized tests such as the SAT as compared to their White peer group. No Child Left Behind (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) has shifted the focus to how well multiple subgroups (based on race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, primary language, and ability/disability status) are achieving in comparison to their White or otherwise privileged peers from the same school and this information is then compared to state and national averages. Because schools are now required to disaggregate achievement data, we can more readily examine patterns of underachievement among specific demographic subgroups.
School counselor preparation and practice have been redefined to encourage school counselors to become leaders and agents of change within school systems in hopes of enhancing outcomes for all students, but particularly to work with student groups who are identified as underachieving (Paisley & Milsom, 2007). Practitioners who take on these new roles are uniquely positioned in schools to disaggregate data and target student groups who are underachieving, to examine current policies that may be inhibiting student achievement, and to develop and implement school-based interventions that facilitate connectedness to school and promote achievement. Taking on these responsibilities is tantamount to school counseling practitioners today, as we are faced with the question guiding the ASCA National Model[R] (American School Counselor Association, 2005), "How are students different as a result of what school counselors do?" (p. 9).
In today's society, education is highly valued and a necessary prerequisite to becoming successful and experiencing at least a moderately high quality of life as an adult (Howard & Solberg, 2006). Unfortunately, African Americans are among the most at-risk populations for underachievement in school and society. Atkinson (2004) reported that Black men are more highly represented in the prison system than in higher education, and only 15.5% of Black Americans have graduated from college compared to 27.7% of White Americans and 42.4% of Asian Americans. Regardless of race, opportunities for youth without a high school diploma are scarce and individuals without a high school diploma are approximately four times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates (Howard & Solberg). Additionally, the poverty rate among African Americans is approximately three times that of White Americans (Atkinson). These data confirm that the effects of social inequality are real and undeniable. The future of African American youth is in serious need of opportunities to increase educational achievement, attainment, and employment in order to continue to work toward bridging the education and wealth gaps that exist in the United States. Armed with this information along with a passion for social justice and a vision of educational equity, today's school counselors are in a unique position to act as agents of change. This can be achieved by developing school-based interventions for students from all disadvantaged groups that provide them with greater chances of school and future success.
The effects of racism on identity development are also worth noting. Tatum (1997) suggested that "adolescents of color are more likely to be actively engaged in an exploration of their racial or ethnic identity than are White adolescents" (p. 53). One component of this development includes an exploration of what it means to be African American in the dominant White culture. Adolescence is a time during which social issues, identity development, and social comparisons are at the forefront of adolescent thinking. Unfortunately, academic achievement is sometimes considered a White characteristic and African-American adolescents may adopt an oppositional identity to traits associated with their White peers, including achievement (Tatum).
Additionally, a phenomenon known as stereotype threat, which was first introduced in the literature by social psychologist Claude Steele (1992, 1997, as cited in Osborne, 2001, p. 291), may have implications on student achievement. Stereotype threat describes the potential impact that stereotypes may have on an individual's anxiety response in testing situations. Thus, an African-American student who has internalized a negative stereotype about the intellectual ability or academic performance of African Americans in general may experience diminishing effects on his or her achievement levels due to fear of embarrassment, failure, and risk of confirming the stereotype (Osborne). As such, stereotype threat is a construct rooted in the social and cultural contexts of racism and oppression. Cohen and Sherman (2005) posited that "when the perceived relevance and salience of negative stereotypes are reduced, African American students have been found to perform significantly better in school" (p. 271). This suggests that stereotype threat has potentially significant implications on the achievement levels of African-American students in schools.
Further, peer relations are important to adolescent identity development. Pugh and Hart (1999) purported that peer relations play an important role in how adolescents construct their identity based on the rejection and/or assimilation of peer group values and norms. According to Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages of development, adolescence is the time during which individuals struggle with the issues of identity and role confusion--essentially meaning that adolescence is largely characterized by social comparisons, exploration of values and future options, and a sense of trying to define oneself (Broderick & Blewitt, 2006). Providing opportunities for adolescents to develop a healthy and successful sense of identity is critical to school connectedness and school success.
Given the substantial student-to-counselor ratios in schools, group work is an effective and time-efficient method of delivering programs and interventions. The literature that empirically demonstrates the effects of group work on student achievement outcomes is limited; however, studies reported by Paisley and Milsom (2007) have shown that group work has a positive impact on school attendance, behavior, work habits, and academic achievement. Brigman and Campbell (2003) reported that achievement and behavior are positively impacted by group counseling interventions that focus not only on these desired outcomes but also address the social and emotional dimensions of group participants. Further, Paisley and Milsom suggested that school counselors should consider offering holistically designed group interventions that acknowledge environmental factors that may contribute to academic underachievement in schools. Considering the social and historical nature of inequities in larger society, counseling groups designed to provide minority students with the opportunity to voice their personal experiences and share concerns about how larger social issues impact their personal development seem prudent in addressing preexisting factors that may contribute to underachievement among African-American students in today's public schools.
Research on the effects of group work with African Americans suggests that these opportunities have the potential to increase hope, decrease feelings of alienation, and increase positive coping and social skills (Ford, 1997, as cited in Bailey & Bradbury-Bailey, 2007). Throughout history, African-American communities have long found strength and survival in their connectedness to family and extended family. Thus, the very nature of group work provides a sensible choice for work with African-American students. Group participation allows members to bond and feel safe sharing personal issues while simultaneously working toward a shared goal. Group counseling also provides a way to address the developmental needs for social acceptance and belonging among adolescents (Bailey & Bradbury-Bailey).
According to the 2006-2007 Georgia School Report Card (Georgia Department of Education, 2007), significant disparities existed between the educational attainment and achievement outcomes of African-American students compared to their White peers at the target school, a rural high school in the state. Data from the reporting period indicated that first-time African-American test takers performed significantly lower on the Enhanced Math and Enhanced English sections of the Georgia High School Graduation Tests (GHSGT) than their White peers. The gap between African-American and White students' level of achievement was most notable on the Enhanced Math section. In 2006-2007, only 38.7% of first-time African-American test takers met or exceeded the minimum passing score, compared to 70% of first-time White student test takers. The gap was also present on the Enhanced English section of the GHSGT, on which 74.2% of first-time African American test takers met or exceeded the minimum passing score, compared to 92% of first-time White test takers.
It is important to note that the number of African-American students enrolled at the target school who tested during the 2006-2007 testing window was not substantial enough to be considered a group for AYP purposes (falling short by four students); thus, this subgroup of students did not count directly against school achievement levels during this time period. However, the statistics clearly demonstrated that African-American students' performance on these sections of the GHSGT fell well short of the 68.6% required to meet the annual measurable objective on the Enhanced Math section and the 84.7% required to meet the annual measurable objective on the Enhanced English section. These data prompted the researchers to develop an intervention to target African-American students who were first-time test takers in an effort to increase their scores on the Enhanced English and Enhanced Math sections of the GHSGT.
Purpose of the Study
The primary investigator, who is a school counselor, examined the achievement gap that existed between African-American students and White students at their small (fewer than 1,500 students), rural high school in the Southeast during the 2007-2008 school year. Demographically, the school's student body composition was approximately 85% White students and 11% African-American students. The remaining 4% of students represented Hispanic/ Latino, multiracial, and Asian subgroups.
The specific focus of the study was to evaluate how a specially designed group counseling intervention affected the achievement of participating African-American students on the Georgia High School Graduation Tests (particularly the Enhanced Math and Enhanced English sections).
The students who were invited to participate in the study were 11th-grade African-American students and were first-time test takers on the Georgia High School Graduation Tests during the 2007-2008 school year. Forty-five students met these criteria during the initial phase of the research period, accounting for approximately 15% of the total enrollment of students classified as 11th-grade first-time test takers. All 45 students were invited to an informational meeting with the researcher and given the opportunity to participate in the intervention. Of the 45 eligible students, 15 students agreed to participate after meeting with the researcher, discussing the intervention with their parents, and returning completed assent and consent forms for participation.
Data Collection and Instruments
Materials required for the intervention were minimal. Appendix A highlights the objectives and activities of specific group sessions. Sessions were structured, yet designed to be largely conversational and interactive. Aside from the student assent and parent consent forms, students were asked to complete the following questionnaires over the course of the research period: (a) Student Self-Assessment of School Success Behaviors and Attribution (used for pretest and posttest after each session), (b) School Climate Survey, and (c) Group Summative Evaluation. Each of these instruments was developed independently by the primary researcher. Additionally, all students participating in the group were given review materials for the Georgia High School Graduation Tests (from the Georgia Department of Education's testing Web site) and instructions explaining how to access additional Web-based review materials.
The intervention was designed to include 10 weekly group counseling sessions and four monthly booster sessions after the conclusion of the group. Due to time constraints, delays with IRB approval, and unanticipated school conflicts, the group met for a total of eight sessions (Appendix A) with no follow-up booster sessions. The school followed a 4 x 4 block schedule and group sessions were scheduled for 1 hour each during the school day. Group meetings were scheduled on an alternating basis so that students were not pulled from the same class period in successive weeks. Students were not penalized in class for participating in the group intervention but were responsible for making up missed class work.
Adequate Yearly Progress data from the 2007-2008 school year and individual test data from the intervention group show favorable results for increased achievement among African-American students on the Georgia High School Graduation Tests. Twelve out of 15 students (80%) who participated in the intervention received passing scores on all four sections tested during the spring administration of the GHSGT. Further, all students who participated in the intervention received passing scores on the English Language Arts (ELA) and Math sections of the GHSGT. Although 100% of students who participated in the intervention received passing scores on the ELA and Math sections of the graduation tests, only 67% of students met the enhanced math score required to meet AYP measures. All students in the research group met AYP measures for the English Language Arts section (see Table 1).
AYP data from 2006-2007 revealed that African-American students at the target school were underachieving at alarming rates on the Georgia High School Graduation Tests when compared to their White peers and to the annual measurable objectives of AYP under No Child Left Behind (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). During the 2006-2007 school year, 38.7% of African-American students who were also first-time test takers met or exceeded the objectives for the Enhanced Math section of the GHSGT and 74.2% of this population met or exceeded the objectives set for the Enhanced English Language Arts section (see Table 2).
AYP results from the 2007-2008 school year revealed that African-American students fared notably better on the Enhanced Math and English Language Arts sections of the GHSGT. The results from this reporting period indicate that African-American students performed at comparable rates with their White peers on the English Language Arts section with 84.2% of African-American students meeting or exceeding minimum performance rates as compared to 84.3% of White students. Additionally, the achievement gap between African-American students and White students on the Enhanced Math narrowed during the 2007-2008 testing period, with 63.2% of African-American students achieving pass rates as compared to 70.5% of White students. African-American students increased their pass rate on the Enhanced Math 24.5 percentage points from the previous school year, which is a 63% increase.
During the 2007-2008 school year, the annual measurable objective required for school accountability under AYP in English Language Arts was set at 87.7% student pass rates and the annual measurable objective required in Enhanced Math was set at 74.9% pass rates. Although the school did not meet the annual measurable objectives set for English Language Arts or Enhanced Math during the 2007-2008 school year among any student groups, it is noteworthy that African-American students made significant gains toward meeting these objectives.
The academic performance results obtained from the intervention group were positive. One hundred percent of students involved in the study met or exceeded the academic performance objectives required for school accountability purposes in English Language Arts and 67% of students in the study met or exceeded the objectives on the Enhanced Math section. All of the students (100%) who participated in the study met or exceeded minimum passing scores on the Language Arts and Math sections of the GHSGT and 80% of students received passing scores on all four sections of the Georgia High School Graduation Test during the spring 2008 test administration.
Additionally, two other surveys were given to participants that focused on their perceptions of school climate and teacher expectations. The data from these surveys indicated that students' perceptions of school climate varied with regard to personnel, safety, rigor, fairness, expectations, encouragement, and teaching modalities. Students seemed most pleased with their interactions with their school counselor and least satisfied with administrator and teacher fairness toward African-American students. Further, students were not pleased with teachers' expectations of African-American students. The students were slightly positive in regard to the used of varied teaching modalities and encouraging rigor among African-American students. Although African-American students at the target school seemed to have positive interactions with their school counselors, their general perception of teachers and administrators seemed slightly negative in regard to fairness and expectations. These data indicate that interventions may need to be developed that target the attitudes and behaviors of school administrators and teachers with regard to policies, expectations, and actions taken toward African-American students. School counselors are in a unique position to influence systemic change by creating policies, programs, and interventions that target behavioral changes in teachers and administrators when they are interacting with African-American students.
LIMITATIONS OF THE STUDY
The school in which the intervention took place began the 2007-2008 school year in Needs Improvement Status Year 1. Therefore, school leaders approved several schoolwide initiatives to improve GHSGT scores during the year in which the research took place. Thus, the results of this study may be limited because of the unintended influence of other factors and interventions that took place simultaneously during the school year. The research model employed in this study was, however, the only intervention that specifically targeted African-American first-time test takers and served as the only intervention that looked at the influence of school climate factors on student achievement.
There are potential research implications stemming from the demographic nature of the school, which warrants viewing the results of the research through a critical lens. The small number of African-American students enrolled in the school and the variable nature of students in the comparison groups may potentially limit the generalizability of the research findings.
Additionally, the academic caliber of students who self-selected to participate in the intervention could be a limiting factor of the research. At the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year, 45 African-American students were classified as 11th-grade students and eligible to take the GHSGT for the first time during the 2007-2008 school year. By the time spring testing occurred, this number decreased to 39 students and all 39 students participated in testing. All 45 students who met the research criteria were given the opportunity to participate in the study, but only 15 students opted to take part in the intervention.
Based on self-report data from the pretest that was given at the beginning of the intervention, 9 of the students who participated indicated that they are typically "B" students, 4 students indicated that they are typically "A" students, and 2 students were unavailable to complete this information. These data suggest that the students who participated in the study generally exhibited a positive school and academic identity and may have been more concerned about academic achievement than those students who opted not to participate. Thus, one could hypothesize that students who participated in the group intervention may have been more likely to score higher than their peers on the Georgia High School Graduation Tests even without the intervention. Regardless of this phenomenon, results of students' academic performance on the English Language Arts and the Enhanced Math sections of the GHSGT were significant enough to impact the overall achievement rates of all African-American student test takers during the research period.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
The present study provides evidence that a specific and focused small-group intervention with an identified group of students can have significant and immediate results. Based on this study, the following recommendations may assist other school counselors in implementing similar programs:
1. School counselors are encouraged to review existing achievement data to identify student populations that may be underachieving. AYP and school report card data are easily accessible through state department of education and district Web sites.
2. School counselors are encouraged to become knowledgeable with their district's student data management systems and facilitate the extraction and disaggregation of data related to student achievement, attendance, behavior, opportunities, and demographics. Learning how to query information from these systems provides increased opportunities for practicing school counselors to more closely examine achievement and other forms of data that may assist in the identification of students who are underachieving.
3. School counselors have a responsibility to advocate for opportunities that reduce barriers for students who are disadvantaged or underachieving due to circumstances beyond their control. Working to reduce these barriers has the potential to increase student connectedness to school and may positively impact school and overall achievement rates.
4. It may be helpful to assess student perceptions of school climate. The school's climate may be indicative of the overall attitudes and behaviors that teachers and administrators have toward students, families, and learning in general. Additionally, assessing student perceptions of teacher expectations was another component to this research. Students may be perceiving teacher interactions that differ from student to student. By conducting this type of assessment, school counselors can detect if fairness, rigor, and equity are being equally distributed in each and every classroom.
5. In today's culture of accountability, school counselors are continuously reminded of the importance of outcome data, which not only demonstrates how students are different as a result of counseling interventions, but also reinforces the value and importance of the profession of school counseling.
As schools continue to struggle to meet the accountability measures required under No Child Left Behind and as school counselors seek to define how students are different as a result of school counselor practice, it becomes increasingly important for schools and school counselors to examine achievement data and evaluate how well schools are serving all student groups. School officials, including school counselors, can become powerful agents of change by examining disparities that exist in achievement among different student subgroups. As school counselors begin to more closely scrutinize the achievement data available, we can begin to develop and implement programs that focus on narrowing the achievement gaps that exist in our schools and providing more equitable educational opportunities. School counselors are uniquely positioned and qualified to provide interventions that promote overall student development in nontraditional ways. By using data to develop targeted programs such as the intervention presented in this article, school counselors can become important agents of change at the student, school, district, and national accountability levels.
APPENDIX A Group Intervention Session Plans Session No. Group Topic Overview of Session 1 Introduction to the a. Welcome and icebreaker. group and expectations b. Establish ground rules. c. Review GHSGT achievement data and goals of the group. d. Review group topics/session dates/logistics. e. Process participants' feelings/concerns about participation in group. 2 Definition of school a. Brainstorming success and discussion activity with chart of barriers to success paper: * What does a successful student look like? * What contributes to someone's ability to be successful/unsuccessful? * What role, if any, does race/ethnicity play? b. Pretest-self-assessment of school success behaviors and attribution. c. Fishbowl activity-students respond to questions regarding perceptions of school/teachers, learning process, inclusion/exclusion from curricula, aspirations/ inspirations, and strengths/hurdles. 3 Test-taking strategies a. Arrange for group to and test preparation meet in computer lab-review test dates and test review Web sites and allow time for independent work. b. Provide printed review materials and encourage students to continue utilizing resources on their own. 4 Perceptions of school a. School climate survey. culture and climate b. Define school climate/culture-group discussion on perceptions of school climate and how climate may impact student achievement. 5 Stereotypes and a. Present concepts of implications of stereotypes, stereotype threat discrimination, oppression, and power/imbalance of power, and discuss potential implications in school and society. b. Small-group work-ask students to brainstorm stereotypes about different groups (good and bad) and potential implications on achievement. c. Process small-group responses with full group. 6 School success behaviors a. Revisit discussion and goal setting from Session 2 and encourage students to think about the people they admire most. What qualities are they most inspired by? How do they define success? b. Provide academic information/transcripts to students and review progress to this point. Explain requirements for promotion and graduation and provide resources for college and career planning. c. Ask students to set short- and long-term goals leading to high school graduation and beyond and ask them to identify individual steps they must take to reach their goals. d. Have students evaluate whether or not their current choices are supporting their goals or preventing them from reaching their goals. 7 Interpersonal relations, a. Assign students to conflict resolution, work in pairs/triads to and resilience develop skits/ role-play scenarios that present positive and negativeways to handle conflict. b. Pairs/triads present skits to group and receive feedback from members on implications of actions based on real-world scenarios and experiences. 8 Wrap-up and a. Review intervention group evaluation and ask students how they feel different as a result of participating in the group. b. Administer posttest (Student Self-Assessment of School Success Behaviors and Attribution). c. Group evaluation. d. Presentation of certificates of completion and celebration.
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Angelia M. Bruce, Ed.S., is a professional high school counselor in Danielsville, GA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Yvette Q. Getch, Ph.D., is an associate professor and Jolie Ziomek-Daigle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services, University of Georgia, Athens.
Table 1. Collective Achievement Rate of Group Participants from Spring 2008 GHSGT Administration No. of Students No. of Students Scoring in Pass Scoring in Pass Total Students Range in ELA Range in Math 15 15 15 100% pass rate 100% pass rate (100% meet (67% meet enhanced ELA enhanced math score for AYP) score for AYP) No. of Students No. of Students Scoring in Pass Scoring in Pass Range in Social Total Students Range in Science Studies 15 13 12 87% pass rate 80% pass rate (not factored (not factored in AYP) in AYP) Note. Math score [greater than or equal to] 516 considered passing for school accountability purposes; math score [greater than or equal to] 500 considered passing for student accountability purposes. Prior to spring 2008, ELA score [greater than or equal to] 511 considered passing for school accountability purposes; ELA score [greater than or equal to] 500 considered passing for student accountability purposes. Effective spring 2008, ELA score [greater than or equal to] 200 considered passing for school and student accountability. Table 2. AYP Achievement Data: Percentage of Students Meeting or Exceeding Performance indicators Test Population 2006-2007 2007-2008 Enhanced Enhanced English Language Enhanced English Math Arts Math All students 90.4% 67.3% 84.6% 69.2% White students 92% 70% 84.3% 70.5% African-American 74.2% 38.7% 84.2% 63.2% students Intervention group NA NA 100% 67%