Achievement gaps persist in Lawrence schools

Achievement gaps exist in the Lawrence school district, on assessments and in graduation rates. There’s a gap between white students and minority students, between students with individualized education programs and those not classified as having disabilities. There’s a gap between native and non-native speakers of English and for those kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

In short, on paper at least, minority, special-needs and socioeconomically disadvantaged children continue to fall behind.

And for some groups, the gap is wide. In data from last year, the graduation rate as an average of all the district’s students is 82.8. For students who self-identified as multiracial, it’s 47.6 percent, down from 56.3 percent in 2010.

As another example, the average score in the measures of academic progress tests for all population groups in eighth-grade math last year were above the national norm, but the average score for black students was 11 points lower than that for white students. In reading assessments in particular, students who qualify for financial aid score lower than both the national average and the all-school average. Students with disabilities score even lower — as much as 18 percent lower last year.

But the numbers can also be deceiving.

Terry McEwen, division director for assessment, research, grants and school improvement with the district, presented a series of graphs, charts and figures to the school board in a recent goal-setting meeting. The graphs show the gaps as separation between lines — achievement goes up over the years for all students, but the distance between lines representing averages and minority groups isn’t closing. Still, McEwen told the board, the numbers come with a lot of caveats.

Graduation rates, for example, are affected by students simply moving away. If a student transfers to an unaccredited school after ninth grade, such as Bishop Seabury Academy, or if the school can’t prove that the now-gone student went to an accredited school — one student recently, McEwen said in an interview, had moved to Sweden — that student is counted as a “dropout” according to national school statistics rules. So even if everyone in 12th grade graduates, it’s still difficult to obtain a 100 percent graduation rate.

Still, McEwen doesn’t deny that achievement gaps exist. But he does say that the overall trend is improvement for all students — and that the answer is not to “lower the bar to lower the gap.”

McEwen said that the assessments that determine the gaps are point-in-time and don’t always reflect real academic progress. The district’s goals are to address individual needs and to close gaps, though McEwen also says he’s hopeful a new set of assessments brought in with the Common Core in 2014 will help reflect yearlong growth in all students.

“All students can learn, but not in the same way or at the same rate,” he said. “Our district goals include meeting individual needs.”

Achievement gaps in assessments, by the numbers

• 5: The number of ethnic and racial groups a student could self-report into for assessment purposes — African-American, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian or white. A guardian fills out a form at enrollment that determines this classification. If more than one box is checked, the student is reported as multiracial. One thing that can make tracking achievement by race difficult — and thus, whether gaps are closing — is that the self-reporting can lead to changes over the years in the same student’s designation, McEwen said.

• 72.6 percent: The number of students with disabilities who met standards in last year’s Kansas reading assessment. That’s compared with the average for all students, 90.8 percent (above the national target of 86 percent). In 2008, 64.3 percent of students with disabilities and 85.2 percent of all students met standards. The trend shows that all students are improving, but the gap between those with and without IEPs persist. To qualify in the disabled category, a student can have a learning difficulty, physical disability or any number of combinations of the two, McEwen said.