African American College Students' Perceptions of Their High School Literacy Preparation

By Banks, Joy | Journal of College Reading and Learning, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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African American College Students' Perceptions of Their High School Literacy Preparation

Banks, Joy, Journal of College Reading and Learning

Upon entering college, some African American students experience difficulty with literacy tasks requiring text analysis, active problem solving, and critical thinking. Many of these difficulties can be traced to the high school as the source. To understand some of the underlying causes for this situation, phenomenological interviews were conducted with eleven first-year African American college students to examine their high school preparation. The students' reflections offer three key findings that have implications for strengthening college-level literacy: (a) students often perceive their literacy preparation as inadequate; (b) students believe that teachers' assumptions about them impact their academic self perception; and (c) students actively developed academic strategies to remain successful.


The National Center for Education Statistics (2001) found that after high school only 17% of African American students were able to demonstrate effective literacy skills as characterized by ability to find information and understand, summarize, or explain moderately complex texts. More alarming is that the National Assessment for Educational Progress (2002) reports the average reading proficiency score for African American twelfth-grade students has declined over the past decade. Upon entering college, these students exhibit lower literacy proficiency as implied by their average verbal Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) score of 433, as compared to a score of 529 earned by average white students (NCES, 2001). In addition, 62% of all entering African American college students require remedial instruction in English as compared to 22 % of the total college population (Hoyt, 1999; Roach & Finney, 2000).

Educators and researchers continue to identify factors that contribute to limited literacy proficiency among African American students. Issues such as language and communication style and culturally relevant teaching practices are dominant themes in research on African American literacy performance. However, few studies include the perceptions of students when determining the influence of language, school preparation, and culture on literacy performance. Focus on these factors without student input may hinder identification of factors that most significantly affect literacy performance of African American students.

Much of the research on literacy performance of African American students has centered on themes of language competence related to the acquisition of reading skills and school performance. According to Smitherman (1977) some linguists and historians have characterized the speech patterns of African Americans as imperfect imitations of Standard English. These claims have spurred a "deficiency" model of literacy performance. This model implies that if African American students are to enhance their academic standing they must first learn to speak Standard English. Farkas (1994) reinforced this notion when he concluded: "one begins to believe that African American students' relatively poor reading performance is due to their relatively meager exposure to standard English rather than because they are not smart" (p. 32).

Other researchers have reasoned that the underperformance of African American and low-income students is a result of shortcomings in urban schools. For example, Oakes (1995) found that: (a) minority students are significantly under enrolled in advanced placement courses even when such courses are available; (b) minority students are referred less often to advanced courses although they may meet the necessary criteria; and (c) minority students are likely to exclude themselves from advanced courses to remain with social peers. This situation may inhibit attainment of literacy skills developed through advanced texts, dialogues, and critical thinking strategies.

A different perspective on school climate is presented by Delpit (2002), who suggests that African American students' under performance in literacy is due to a school atmosphere absent of meaningful cultural representation and a lack of general appreciation for diversity within many schools.

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