Common Core test scores show achievement gap, even in high-performing schools

FILE: Latest standardized test scores show a continuing achievement gap among groups of students by ethnicity in both English language arts and math.
FILE: Latest standardized test scores show a continuing achievement gap among groups of students by ethnicity in both English language arts and math.
Patrick Semansky/AP

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Results released this week from the new Common Core tests taken by California public school students earlier this year show a troubling trend: black and Latino students continue to perform lower than their white and Asian counterparts.

Even in high-performing schools, the divide continues, raising the question once again: what will it take to narrow the differences among ethnic groups that educators call the achievement gap?

“It definitely is a source of concern,” said Sean Teer, principal of Wonderland Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon, one of the Los Angeles Unified School District's highest performing schools.

School officials acknowledge the disparities seen in the scores, searchable by schools and districts on the California Department of Education website, continue to show up in standardized tests. Although some recent performance measures, such as graduation rates, have shown improvement for black and Latino students, the progress has been largely incremental.

“We’re making some progress, but the architecture of what the data says year-after-year is that the gaps are with us. We have growing inequality in our country,” said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, the dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education.

At Wonderland Avenue Elementary, this week's test score release prompted celebration: 94 percent of the 330 students who took the test met or exceeded the grade-level standards in English language arts and 82 percent did so in math. 

The school’s Latino students, about 4 percent of the student population, scored lower on the standardized tests when compared to white and Asian children. Scores for black students, 11 of whom took the test, were not reflected in the California Department of Education's searchable school-by-school results.

Teer said his school is trying to close the differences in achievement with a tougher reading curriculum that focuses on building critical thinking skills.

“It’s not just reading and memorizing story and plot line, but asking more questions like: what was the author’s motivation, what were the characters’ motivations, what were their traits, what are they doing, [and] making predictions of the story as well,” Teer said.

The school is also teaching math lessons that engage students. Theirs is not the math curriculum recommended by district. Instead, the school uses a program that lets teachers mold the lessons to the needs of their students.

Some researchers say standardized tests don’t do a good job of measuring the achievement of Latino students in particular, many of whom are categorized as English learners because they struggle to learn academic English. They add that school administrators should view their language skills and culture as assets rather than liabilities to be changed.

“You need to know your communities, you need to know your families, you need to know what their ambitions are, what their expectations are, what their skills are. If you start with that point of departure, you will succeed in connecting with a greater number of Latino-origin children,” Suarez-Orozco said.

At one Los Angeles program held this summer to help black students improve in math, instructors used references to Africa as a way to connect lessons to students' culture. Some educators also endorse ethnic studies classes as a means of making school work relevant to diverse students. 

“I think ethnic studies is important because it gives all students a sense of their history, our history, and where we should go in the future,” said Nick Henning, an education researcher at California State University, Fullerton.

He said he is not just talking about ethnic studies for urban school districts with large black and Latino student populations, such as LAUSD, which adopted a graduation requirement for ethnic studies, but high-performing school districts like San Marino Unified as well.

Scores show that 86 percent of Asian students tested in San Marino Unified met or exceeded the English standards. Eighty-five percent of the white students did the same while 73 percent of black students and 68 percent of Latino students met or exceeded the English standards.

The achievement gap is even wider in math test scores: 92 percent of Asian students met or exceeded the grade-level standards; 81 percent of whites did the same; 63 percent of Latinos met the standards or better; and 50 percent of blacks achieved those levels.

To close the gap, San Marino Superintendent Alex Cherniss said his school district would be giving students one-on-one help. As for introducing ethnic studies, it is “something I wouldn’t exclude,” he said, but the school board would need to approve it.

A bill to create an optional ethnic studies curriculum is on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown, the Huffington Post reported Thursday.

Reaction among parents to the latest test scores have been mixed. 

Donna Hutt Stapfer Bell, whose child attends Van Deene Avenue Elementary, called the school scores “horrible.” But she told KPCC that looking at the results themselves weren't particularly helpful.

Parent Susan Hughes said she was pleased with the results for her daughter's school, Broadway Elementary, and it “reinforces my opinion and experience that the principal and teachers there are amazing.”

And Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, who has a child in high school, said she didn't bother looking at the scores. “This was the first year testing results were released, and like anything, it's going to take a few years to acclimate,” she said. “Kids didn't suddenly get 'dumb' in a year, and teachers did not stop teaching last year. Move the bar or change the scoring, and, of course, kids will rate differently.”