School report cards show stubborn achievement gaps

Increasing diversity in schools comes with complicated academic challenges.

October 31, 2012

State education officials are releasing the annual report cards for all of Illinois’ public schools today. Slightly more students are meeting state academic standards—increasing from 82 percent to 82.1 percent.

But there are still large gaps in achievement between white students and their minority classmates. 

As the state moves to new ways of measuring student success in the next two years, officials say the new measures of accountability will focus even more on closing those gaps.

Consider this: The number of “racially balanced” schools in Chicago’s suburbs has quadrupled in the last 20 years. Today, just four percent of all suburban schools are 90 percent or more white.

But according to state schools data out today, many of those increasingly diverse schools have some of the widest achievement gaps in the state. 

“I’m not happy with the achievement gaps that exist,” said State Superintendent Christopher Koch. “I wanted to see more closure in that.”

Overall, achievement for black and Hispanic students has increased since 2006, but the gaps have largely remained, as white student achievement also continues to grow.

Some school districts, like those in suburban Evanston and Oak Park, have been working to close their achievement gaps for years.

Others—like west suburban Glenbard High School District 87—are a little newer to the effort.

Glenbard West senior Daniel Rodriguez says when he first started high school, he noticed something. 

“Teachers try to do their best to treat everybody the same, although there is a certain difference in how much attention they give you and, in a way, how much they care about you,” Rodriguez said. “Some teachers care a lot but others are like, typical ‘they’re not going anywhere, let’s care about the ones that are going to make a difference in our future.’”

Senior Maria Sanchez says that kind of racial stereotyping, intentional or not, affects minority students like her.

“I ended up in regular classes, not in the levels I should be, so that kind of threw me back, especially now that I’m trying to apply for colleges. It’s a huge drawback,” Sanchez said.

Rodriguez and Sanchez are part of a group trying to change that. 

Every Monday, Glenbard’s research director Patrick Donohue gets together with some Latino students at the district offices.

They talk about getting past obstacles and getting ready for college. And they plan events to help minority students at all four of the Glenbard high schools.

It’s part of a larger effort that began four years ago to address low minority achievement.

“We knew there’s not a single silver bullet, but we wanted to attack it on a bunch of fronts,” Donohue said. “And so we had a committee of about 60 people meet for about 18 months and come up with seven recommendations.”

Donohue said they eliminated “basic” classes—where minority students had been disproportionately tracked, targeted more minority students for Advanced Placement, tried to increase after-school  involvement, started parent workshops and are trying to hire more diverse staff.

“We’re certainly far from there and arrived, but we are making some progress,” Donohue said after the Latino groups most recent meeting.

For most districts, that progress doesn’t come quickly or easily. 

Researchers attribute disparities in academic performance to a range of issues—from socioeconomic status, to cultural differences, to classroom instruction.

Education consultant Bea Young has helped some districts narrow their gaps and said schools first need to face long-standing ideas of race and equality.

“If we still assume that we have to be colorblind, if we can’t say, yes, black and Latino students are facing different challenges, we’re still not addressing the issues of race in our country, in our educational systems,” Young said.

At the state level, Superintendent Koch said he wants to tackle achievement gaps directly next year.

The state is launching a new Center for School Improvement that will, among other things, identify schools with the largest gaps between their highest achieving and lowest achieving groups. The group has not yet identified which schools and districts they plan to work in.

“The overall strategy here is to identify learning problems early and to identify them as soon as possible,” Koch said. For a high school district like Glenbard, the gaps often already exist before students walk through the school doors.

The state has collected data on achievement gaps since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which required all states to assess all students for proficiency. The law required schools to track students in a variety of “subgroups”—separating out different racial and ethnic minorities, as well as non-English speaking and disabled students.

In many ways, No Child Left Behind shined a light on the achievement gap and encouraged schools to work hard to eliminate them.

But No Child Left Behind also came with the unrealistic mandate that all students must be proficient by the year 2014. It’s because of that mandate that the Obama administration offered states waivers to the law. Illinois is the only state that applied for a waiver that has not yet received it, mostly due to when the waiver requires states to implement stricter teacher evaluations. (The waiver requires states to implement by the 2014-15 school year, but Illinois law says schools have until 2016-17.)

Regardless of when a waiver might be granted, the state plans to move to a new accountability system in the coming years that will measure student growth and is aligned with higher academic standards.

It’s likely when that change happens, fewer students of all races and “subgroups” will be considered at grade level. Koch said he expects the gaps will still exist under the new system.

Glenbard West’s Daniel Rodriguez said even as the bar is raised for all students, he hopes minorities will do as well as everyone else.

“We’re living in a society, in an economy, where sort of, if you don’t get an education you’re not really going to have a future or go anywhere. And we have to put on our A game,” Rodriguez said.

But the first step, he says, is getting everyone to realize there’s a problem.

(Raw data provided at the bottom of this story is not an official list of schools with large gaps that the state wants to target for improvement. It is raw percentages of students meeting and exceeding state standards with basic calculations to find the size of gaps between various subgroups. The state supresses scores if there is not enough data available.)