mind the gap

New York City’s racial achievement gaps widen as students get older, report finds

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

The achievement gaps between racial groups in New York City appear as soon as students begin taking state tests and get worse over time, according to a new analysis of state test-score data.

Black and Hispanic students score below their white and Asian peers beginning in third grade, then fall further behind as they move into middle school, according to a report released Tuesday by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

The analysis follows roughly 71,000 individual students who entered third grade in 2008, tracking their state standardized test scores through seventh grade (in math) and eighth grade (in reading). The study, which includes students in traditional and charter schools, controls for factors such as students’ disability status, poverty level, and the schools they attended — suggesting that racial gaps cut across different schools and student groups.

While this study can’t say whether the city is getting better over time at closing these gaps, it does show that — at least among one cohort of students — the disparities worsened as students got older.

“A stated goal of a lot of education reform over the last 15 years” has been an effort to narrow the performance gaps between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers, said Ray Domanico, the IBO’s director of education research. “It’s sobering that these gaps grow over time and the school system doesn’t seem to be making a dent.”

Here are the six takeaways from the report:

1. Black and Hispanic students started off far behind.

Roughly a third of black and Hispanic students in that 2008-09 cohort landed in the bottom quartile on the reading tests — meaning they earned lower scores than 75 percent or more of test-takers. By contrast, just 13 percent of white and Asian students fell in that lowest tier.

The gaps were similar in math, with Asians doing a little better than whites and Hispanics narrowly outperforming blacks.

2. As they got older, black students lost ground.

Over time, black students in that cohort fell further behind.

By eighth grade, 33 percent scored in the lowest quartile in reading — a 4 percentage point increase from third grade. In math, 35 percent were low-performing, a 3-point increase.

Meanwhile, the share of white and Asian students in the bottom rungs of reading and math grew smaller.

3. Hispanic students made slight gains in reading, but not math.

By the end of middle school, the percentage of Hispanic students in the bottom quartile in reading had shrunk by 3 points — narrowing from 33 to 30 percent. In math, it stayed the same: 30 percent.

That slight improvement in reading helped narrow their gap a tiny bit with their white peers, but not with Asians.

4. By eighth grade, Asian students led the pack in reading and math.

If black and Hispanic students were over-represented in the bottom rungs of achievement — Asians dominated the top.

In third grade, nearly half of Asian students scored above the 75th percentile — a larger share than any other racial group. In reading, they landed slightly behind white students.

By eighth grade, Asian students had widened their lead in math, with 59 percent making it into the top quartile — a 10-point leap from third grade. And in reading, 49 percent reached the top rung.

In both subjects, they made up a larger percentage of top scorers than all other racial groups, including whites.

5. Black boys came out on bottom.

In both reading and math, black boys represented a far greater share of low-performing students than boys in any other racial category.

By the end of middle school, 41 percent of black boys scored in the bottom quartile in reading, and 38 percent were low-performing in math. White boys, by contrast, had just 14 percent in the bottom rung in reading, and 10 percent in math.

6. Among all races, girls out-shined boys in math.

Starting in third grade, female students outperformed their male peers in math: 29 percent of girls across all racial groups scored in the top quartile, compared to 26 of boys.

By eighth grade, the girls’ lead had shrunk to 1 percentage point — but they still bested the boys.

In response to the report, education department officials said they are committed to reducing achievement gaps through a series of initiatives. Those include additional computer-science courses, algebra classes for all middle-school students, and expanded free preschool. They also noted that black and Hispanic high-school students have seen improvements in graduation and dropout rates relative to their peers.

“The purpose of our Equity and Excellence for All agenda,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “is to close the achievement gap and ensure a high-quality education for all students.”

you got data

Can Colorado do a better job of sharing school report cards with parents? Data advocates say yes.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Just as the Colorado State Board of Education is expected to approve the latest round of school quality ratings, a national organization is calling on all states to do a better job of providing this kind of information to parents and taxpayers.

The Data Quality Campaign last week released a report highlighting states that are providing more and clearer data on its schools. Colorado, once known as a leader in collecting and sharing school data, was not among the all-star list.

The Washington-based nonprofit, which advocates for school data transparency across the nation, is suggesting states use plain language, disaggregate more data and communicate specific education priorities to parents and the public.

The campaign and other supporters of making school data more public believe the information can empower school leaders, teachers and parents to make better decisions for students.

“Colorado has long been a leader in making sure there is robust data,” said Brennan Parton, the Data Quality Campaign’s director of policy and advocacy. “But if you want the normal mom, community member, or policy maker to understand the data, maybe the goal shouldn’t be comprehensive and complex but meaningful and useful.”

State education department officials acknowledged they could do a better job of making data more accessible to parents, but said in a statement this week that they do not consider its annual “school performance framework” to be a report card for schools.

“We look at the SPF as more of a technical report for schools and districts to understand where the school plan types and district accreditation ratings come from,” Alyssa Pearson, the education department’s associate commissioner for school accountability and performance, said in an email.

The ratings, which are largely based off of student performance on state English and math tests, are used in part to help the state education department target financial resources to schools that aren’t making the grade. All schools are also required to submit improvement plans based on the department’s rating.

The department posts the ratings online, as do schools. But the reports are not sent directly to parents.

Instead, the department suggests that its school dashboard tool is a better resource to understand the status of a nearby public school, although Pearson acknowledged that it is not the most parent-friendly website.

“This tool is very useful for improvement planning purposes and deeper understanding of individual schools and districts — both in terms of demographics, as well as academic performance,” Pearson said. “We are also working on refreshing and possibly redesigning other tools that we have had on the website for reporting, including creating a more user-friendly parent-reporting template.”

Trezevant fallout

Memphis orders a deeper probe into high school grade changes

The firm hired to assess the pervasiveness of grade changes in Memphis high schools has begun a deeper probe into those schools with the highest number of cases.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the firm plans to “search for documentation and figure out what happened” at those schools, noting that not all grade changes — changing a failing grade to passing — are malfeasant.

Still, Hopson promised to root out any wrongdoing found.

“Equally important is figuring out whether people are still around changing grades improperly, and creating different internal controls to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm from North Carolina, was hired over the summer as grade tampering was confirmed at Trezevant High School. The firm’s report found the average number of times high schools changed a failing final grade to passing was 53. Ten high schools were highlighted in the report as having 199 or more grade changes between July 2012 and October 2016.

Source: Dixon Hughes Goodman

The report was one of several released Tuesday by the Shelby County Schools board following an investigation instigated by allegations in a resignation letter from former Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin.

The firm’s analysis concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted,” prompting Shelby County Schools to extend the firm’s contract to dig deeper.

The investigations have already cost the school system about $500,000, said Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel. It is unclear how much the contract extension for Dixon Hughes Goodman will cost, but board chairwoman Shante Avant said it is less than $100,000, the threshold for board approval.

Hopson said there’s not a timeline for when the school audits will be complete. He said the district is already thinking through how to better follow-up on grade changes.

“For a long time, we really put a lot of faith and trust in schools and school-based personnel,” he said. “I don’t regret that because the majority do what they’re supposed to do every day… (but) we probably need to do a better job to follow up to verify when grade changes happen.”

Avant said the board will determine what policies should be enacted to prevent further grade tampering based on the outcome of the investigation.

“The board is conscious that although we know there’s been some irregularities, we do want to focus on moving forward and where resources can be better used and how we’re implementing policies and strategies so that this won’t happen again,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.