How California Can Tackle Persistent Achievement Gaps

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California is failing many of its black, Latino and low-income students, according to recently released results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the nation’s report card. NAEP results show that 85 percent of the state’s black 4th graders tested below proficient in math, a number that actually worsens over time. By 8th grade, 90 percent of black students tested below proficient in math.

The figures aren’t much better for Latino or low-income students. Reading results for California’s students of color are also dismal, and the racial achievement gap remains a startling blight on our state. A full 81 percent of Latino 8th graders test below proficient in reading.  And in every category, white students performed at least 25 percent better than their black, Latino and low-income counterparts. Asian students made an even stronger showing across the board.  

LAUSD Board Member Monica Garcia (BD2) is introducing an ambitious resolution Tuesday to close the achievement gap at LAUSD, where nearly two-thirds of 3rd to 8th graders, as well as 11th graders, are failing to meet standards in both English Language Arts and math on Smarter Balanced exams.

The resolution sets high goals for all kids: It calls for 100 percent of 3rd graders to meet or exceed standards on state tests, and 100 percent of high school graduates to be eligible to apply to a California 4-year university, which means receiving a C or above in A-G college-prep courses. The resolution also calls for all kids identified as English Language Learners in kindergarten to reclassify by the end of 6th grade.

As LAUSD attempts to close the gap, Speak UP spoke with Ryan J. Smith, Executive Director of The Education Trust-West, an advocacy organization, about the sobering NAEP results. He said it’s not all bad news, and there is reason for hope. An abridged version of that conversation follows.

Speak UP: What is the big takeaway, if any, from California’s recent NAEP results?

Ryan J. Smith: The results are mixed. Overall, California’s rankings improved, and this is encouraging. It shows that California’s efforts to provide more resources to underserved students may be leading to gains. We see some gaps that are narrowing but others are widening, and growth is going in the wrong direction.

Basically white student growth is outpacing black and Latino student growth across the state. In fact, from our analysis, it shows that 50 percent of Latino students and 57 percent of black students in California are below basic in 4th grade reading. That’s compared to 38 percent and 36 percent respectively in Massachusetts, which is the number one ranked state in 4th grade reading.

You also see that although California substantially improved its overall ranking in 8th grade reading, 81 percent of black and Latino students are below proficient in 8th grade math compared to 49 percent of white students and 46 percent of Asian students. Bottom line, large equity gaps persist and some have even widened in the state.

SU: So there’s really not much to cheer.

RS: I don’t think this is good news. I think we should celebrate where we see some success. But really this is a call to action that the state must do more for its black and Latino students.

SU: Is California an anomaly in terms of size of the achievement gaps?

RS: You do have other states [that] have achievement gaps, although there are some states that have been able to narrow these gaps more than California has. And California also on overall rankings, you know… there are scores that show that even more generally we have work to do. For example, California ranks 45th in NAEP 4th grade math. It ranks 37th in NAEP 8th grade reading. It ranked 43rd in 4th grade reading. So it’s not only that we have gaps, but we also, in some cases, rank towards the bottom of states when it comes to really important assessments.

SU: And this is where we have been for a while?

RS: You do see some progress. I will say this: You do see some overall progress for black and Latino students period. We are seeing more success. The challenge is, the gaps remain. In 1992 you saw the black-white gap at 39 points and the Latino-white gap at 31 points. You’ve seen definite growth for all of these groups, so we’re seeing progress. But in 2017, the black-white gap is 27 points and the Latino-white gap is 22 points when it comes to 4th grade math. So even though we are narrowing some gaps, we need to see more progress in order to close these persistent equity gaps in this generation.

SU: It seems like there are a lot of well meaning people talking about this problem, wanting to improve things. So what’s not happening?

RS: Achievement gaps are a reflection of opportunity gaps. The resources that we provide students and the challenges for underserved communities, we tend to give them less resources. And there’s a couple ways. If you’re an African American or Latino student in this state, you are less likely to have access to diverse and effective teachers. You’re less likely to have access to college counselors. You’re less likely to have access to rigorous coursework like the A-G sequence, the AP and honors classes, physics and calculus courses. So those who we historically underserve, we continue to underserve. And those aren’t decisions students make or families make. Those are decisions that we within the education system continue to make, and we have to bear some responsibility for that.

SU: A lot of the things you mention relate to older students. What about before fourth grade?

RS: There are a couple things. Research shows that the most important factor in student success is who is teaching them and how they are being taught. So the fact that elementary school students of color and low-income [kids] have less access to effective teachers absolutely matters. When you look at the 4th grade reading scores, it’s an indication that some students need more supports that we’re not providing them. Yes we also have to think about how we improve early learning opportunities and access to early learning opportunities for students.

Many people will point to the word “gap” and say that a lot of these students come in behind when it comes to vocabulary, and that’s true. But unfortunately, the data show even students who come in a little behind, end up a lot behind once they are in our systems. So we’re actually exacerbating those gaps. We’re not closing them. There are things that we are doing that unfortunately are creating barriers for students.

SU: I realize you probably can’t give a comprehensive prescription in a few minutes. But what needs to be done?

RS: If we want to close opportunity and achievement gaps in this generation, I think there are a couple things that can be done. The first thing we have to do is make high quality early learning opportunities available to all students no matter where you live. (That’s preschool.) The other things are, we have to offer and ensure academic relevance, rigor and support. When we look at high-performing schools and districts, they offer students enriching learning opportunities, they offer GATE…You have effective teachers that make instruction relevant to students from diverse backgrounds. We need to ensure equitable access to effective and diverse teachers. That’s just important, hands down.

We need to extend learning time for those who are behind. Learning opportunities outside the school day allow students to enrich their learning and catch up if they are academically behind. So we have to think about: How do we connect our after school programs to the instructional content that our students are learning? How do we think about summer learning opportunities as a way to catch students up and to ensure that we’re closing gaps?

We have to improve school climate and fix school discipline. You can’t teach students if they are not in the classroom. And we know that suspension and expulsion disproportionately effect black and Latino students, particularly black and Latino male students. We have to think about implementing research based approaches like restorative justice programs and positive behavior intervention and supports that help resolve conflict rather than push students out of the classroom. And the last thing, we have to strengthen classrooms and communities together. So we have to provide a broad range of social and emotional supports for these students as well.

SU: There is a cost associated with many of these strategies. Is the money there?

RS: Obviously what we spend is a reflection of our values. California is in the bottom half of states when it comes per pupil spending. So we have to address issues of fiscal adequacy. We need to have more resources. But I’ll say that resources alone won’t close gaps. It’s how you spend the money.

The idea is that you would make sure that whatever you’re investing in [is] connected to evidence-based practices that show that we can get results, because there are times when we have had a lot of money, and these gaps have remained, and there’s times when we have not had as much money, and these gaps have remained. So it’s not just an issue of money. The other thing I’ll say is, given the amount of money that our state spends on building prisons and housing prisoners, you would hope that we would be proactive and invest that money in our education systems.

SU: Is there any reason to be hopeful?

I absolutely believe we should be hopeful because we see schools and districts that are narrowing and closing these opportunity and achievement gaps every day. We will release research this summer to show the bright spot schools and districts — those who have done it and continue to beat the odds when it comes to supporting students of color and low-income students. If it can be done in specific schools and districts across the state, it can be done everywhere. Really the question is, we need to focus on actually closing these gaps forever.

SU: What sort of impact, if any, can the state superintendent of public instruction have?

RS: The State Superintendent of Public Instruction can do a couple things that I think are really important. Number one, they run the California Department of Education. So they will be in charge of hiring and managing staff that set the vision for how California should proceed when it comes to education. They are important in messaging the priorities of the state, as well, which is really essential.

The other thing I’ll say is, we need someone who will set a vision that closing achievement and opportunity gaps is at the center of California’s education agenda. If you think about it, one in five students are English learners. Three in five students are black or Latino. Three out of five students are low income. We often call these groups subgroups or minorities, but these are the majority of the students in California. So If you’re not talking about moving the needle for black, brown and poor children, then you are putting California’s economy in jeopardy. You’re putting California’s future in jeopardy. So this should be a topic that both state superintendent and gubernatorial candidates are prioritizing first.

-- Leslee Komaiko