By Safia Malin

Former President Barack Obama proved to be a staunch advocate on eliminating the achievement gap in education. One of President Obama’s key objectives of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative was to specifically address the gap that exists between boys of color and their peers. The achievement gap will continue to be one of the many critical topics in education that the Trump Administration (and administrations to come) will face. And as states develop implementation plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act, they must pay particular attention to subgroups of students for school accountability.

According to a recent report published by the Economic Policy Institute, the achievement gap has been gradually shrinking over the years. Unfortunately, English language learners continue to trail their White peers. Additionally, the report, Five Key Trends in U.S. Student Performance, finds that the gap between higher- and lower-income students remains stagnant. Furthermore, schools in the U.S. remain segregated both in terms of race and socio-economic status which negatively effects Black and Hispanic students. Monitoring these patterns and developing pragmatic solutions in a timely-manner could have a significant impact on the future of education in the U.S.

National Achievement Gap Trends

Share of 8th grade mathematics students attending schools with a given concentration of poor students.

Source: Economic Policy Institute

The demographics of American public schools have experienced both drastic and gradual changes throughout the last few decades. For instance, the percentages of Asian and Hispanic students have increased while populations of Black and White students have gradually declined.

Populations of low-income students increased rapidly and students eligible for free or reduced lunch (a school’s measure of poverty) have skyrocketed. The percentages of fourth graders eligible for free-and-reduced priced lunch (FRL) increased from 41.4 percent in 2003 to 54.4 percent in 2013. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend high poverty schools compared to their White and Asian peers.

Why is this important to draw attention to? Race and socio-economic status have historically held a great deal of weight in student performance.

The report yields several different key findings from 1996-2013:

  • Minority students made gains in both math and reading (both races closer to 0 Standard Deviations (SD) in eighth grade math scores)
  • Outcomes for low-income students did not make substantial improvements (FRL eighth graders scored .46 SD lower in math and .41 lower in reading)
  • The already sizable gap between English language learners and their peers grew (Hispanic ELL .85 SD from white students; Asian ELL .65 SD)
  • Racial and income segregation in schools negatively impacts the performance of Black and Hispanic students

Outliers in Colorado

Here in Colorado, numerous districts are successfully serving disadvantaged student populations. A recent report published by A+ Colorado, The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts, identifies over 45 school districts with notable improvements for subgroups of students.

Figure 9 from the Outliers: The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts

Source: The Outliers: The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts

Steamboat Springs, Harrison 2, and East Grand 2 are among several schools with high populations of low-income students and with high performance on state assessments. Lewis Palmer school district documented significant growth for their Black students and Eaton RE-2 recorded improving graduation rates for Hispanic students. Widefield 3 and Brush RE-2 both had graduation rates above 80 percent for their multi-lingual students. These districts challenge the harmful and incorrect assertion that certain student populations are destined to be low-performing.

Figure 12 from The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts

Source: The Source: The Outliers: The Outliers: The State of Colorado School Districts

Opportunities for Success

The data from both studies confirm that there is still much work to be done about achievement gaps in our country and our state. Just as important, however, is the ability for states to collect this performance data and make it available in clear and systematic ways for schools and communities.

“Reports like The Outliers invite us to revisit our systems for transparency about how students are performing in Colorado. We are always excited to celebrate schools that are doing well,” said Lt. Governor Donna Lynne on the release of the report. “It’s critical to have reliable data that allows us to recognize what’s working and focus on areas of underperformance, which allows us to share best practices and increase educational opportunities for all Colorado kids.”

Though much work is still to be done, bright spots across the state and country are showing us schools and districts that are successfully serving all student populations, no matter their background or zip code. Colorado Succeeds will continue to advocate for necessary policies and practices that ensure all students have access to high quality education and families and communities have the information they need about their local schools.