Local Action Urged on Achievement Gaps
‘Shared Responsibility’ Needed Across Communities
The achievement gap among Kentucky students persists despite the state’s overall academic gains, according to the findings of a Prichard Committee Study Group. The group said that urgency is needed to make sure schools deliver better results to students from poor families, children of color, and those with language barriers or special learning needs.
State testing results break down academic performance by different demographic groups. In addition, educators, advocates and lawmakers often focus attention on performance of students in targeted groups. Still, higher expectations and solutions that will improve achievement are not arriving quickly enough, according to the report, “Excellence with Equity: It’s Everybody’s Business.”
Prichard Committee said that solutions need to include early childhood investments that will reduce school readiness gaps. Organized local discussions and strategies for raising expectations and tracking results should become prominent. Other steps needed to address achievement gaps include better promotions of promising teaching and relationship-building strategies in schools, a review of bias in disciplinary consequences and identification of gifted students, and effective steps to increase racial diversity in Kentucky’s teaching force.
“We must recommit ourselves to the vision that all students have the right to equitable opportunities to learn at high levels,” said Helen Mountjoy of Daviess County, a former education cabinet secretary and chair of the State Board of Education as well as a current Prichard Committee member. She co-chaired the Achievement Gap Study Group. “These are our students, our schools, and they are our future.”
A FRAMEWORK FOR DISCUSSION
Rev. C.B. Akins, a former member of the State Board of Education and study group co-chair, added that academic results translate to opportunities for students to move forward and succeed as adults. “This report rebukes the need for further study of what we should do and challenges all who are strategically positioned to make a difference by doing what we already know will work,” he said at a Frankfort news conference on Aug. 18 announcing the report.
The Prichard Committee sees the report as a conversation starter and framework for discussions and plans to follow up the report with data updates and support for local action, said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, the group’s director, pledging “an aggressive and consistent effort in the months ahead to galvanize support among community and business leaders, advocates, policymakers and others to move with urgency.”
“When Kentuckians come together with a shared vision, we make tremendous progress,” she added.
n The report highlights data such as fourth grade reading scores, eighth grade math results and Kentucky’s college- and career-readiness results showing a 30 percentage-point gap between students based on English language proficiency, a 25 percentage-point gap between African American and white students, a 20 percentage-point gap based on identified learning differences and also family income, and a 10 percentage-point gap between Hispanic students and their white peers.
n The study group also noted that even as key indicators of student achievement have increased in Kentucky, achievement gaps have persisted and even crept higher. From 2005 to 2015, for example, fourth-grade reading proficiency on the test known as “the nation’s report card,” showed that achievement differences between white and African American students moved from an 8-point gap to 11 points. A 7-point gap between students from low-income families and their peers increased to 18 points. Performance gaps between students with identified disabilities and their peers showed the same trend. While all groups logged improved results, achievement gaps widened.
n The report noted significant achievement gaps on the state’s kindergarten-readiness screening. Looking at 2015 scores, the results note wide gaps based on English proficiency (a 22-point difference in readiness), identified disabilities (a 26-point difference), and family income (a 30-point spread). Among racial groups, performance was within six percentage points, between 46 percent and 52 percent readiness except for Hispanic students (29 percent) and Asian students (64 percent). The average readiness rate for all students was 50 percent.
n In addition, the report called attention to a significant difference in out-of-school suspension rates and in-school removals for African American pupils compared to other racial groups. In 2015, almost four times as many African American students were suspended than white students. The rate of in-school classroom removals was well over three times higher for African American students as white students.
n Data also show large disparities in how students from various demographic groups are identified as gifted and talented. While the overall rate in 2014 was 11.2 percent of the total enrollment, only 6 percent of students from low-income families were identified, 4.5 percent of Hispanic students were identified, and 5 percent of African American students were identified.
n Finally, the report noted the lack of racial diversity among teachers. For example, 10.5 percent of Kentucky pupils are African American, while only 3.5 percent of classroom teachers are. Another 2,950 African American teachers would be needed to balance those rates. Meanwhile, Hispanics account for 5.5 percent of Kentucky students but only 0.6 percent of classroom teachers. Another 2,096 Hispanic teachers would be needed for equal representation.
The study group also concluded that more effective implementation of existing policies should be attempted before new policies are adopted. Examining a range of state-level policy solutions focused on access and achievement-gap issues dating from the 1990s to 2013, the study group found that their use and effectiveness leaves room for improvement.
Attention to cultural issues involving students of color and those from low-income backgrounds and consistently engaging families as partners in student learning were also pointed out as ways that schools and communities could begin to address achievement gap issues.
“It is time to move past an age of accountability to an age of shared responsibility,” said Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who praised the report’s attention to achievement issues at the news conference announcing the report. He said that the solution involves a hard look at many facets of school, including courses students take. He said that an opportunity gap is created when schools weaken core courses, pointing out that many high schools offer “Algebra I, Algebra I Light, and Algebra I Low-Carb.”
Mountjoy added that finding ways to have candid, productive local conversations will be a key to addressing the issue. “Perhaps the most difficult role that we as community members have is to build trust that allows for difficult conversations about poverty, race, and different ways of learning.”