Lawrence school report says black students more likely to get out-of-school suspension, highlights gaps between white, minority students

Lawrence USD 497 school board

The Lawrence school board was presented with data Monday that the district continues to contend with significant academic and behavioral disparities along racial lines.

Among the findings:

• Black students make up 6.4 percent of the student population but were given 15.8 percent of out-of-school suspensions and accounted for 12.2 percent of the district’s unexcused absences.

• On reading assessments given this spring, about 84 percent of white students scored average or better, while only 62 percent of black students scored average or better. Similar discrepancies existed between white and Hispanic students and white and Native American students.

The report, though, didn’t provide a clear picture of past performances, leading school board members to wonder whether the district was making progress in closing such gaps. Board members asked for data from prior years, and staff members said they would deliver to the board at a future date.

“I think it is important the board and the community has this information so we understand where we are at,” board president Shannon Kimball said after the meeting. “Our district is not afraid of taking a hard look at the data. I don’t see it as the end of this conversation.”

The report, which was in the form of a “data carousel” was created by Kevin Harrell, district director of student support and special education; Leah Wisdom, assistant director of equity and student support; and Terry McEwen, district director of assessment, research and accountability.

The report included academic measurements gleaned from the district’s three assessment tools: AIMSweb, given to all kindergartners through fifth-graders; the Measurement of Academic Progress, given to kindergartners through eighth-graders; and the state assessments given to third- through eighth-graders and sophomores. It also included the district’s annual equity audit and a report on behavioral screening given to all students.

Teachers understood and shared with students and parents that the AIMSweb and MAP assessments did not measure a student’s ability to succeed but revealed current achievement levels, McEwen said. Assessments were useful tools in pinpointing student and classroom strengths and weaknesses and, thus, where classroom instruction should be focused, he said.

Data from the MAP and state assessments did indicate disparities in academic achievement along racial lines, McEwen said.

For example, on the spring 2017 MAP reading assessment, 83.9 percent of white students and 85.3 percent of Asian students scored at average or higher; 62.3 percent of black, 72 percent of Hispanic and 62.4 percent of Native Americans scored at average or better. There were similar results in the MAP math assessment, in which 80.3 percent of white and 86.3 percent of Asian students scored at average or above; 52 percent of black and 48.3 percent of Native American students recorded scores of average or better.

In response to a question from board member Jessica Beeson, McEwen acknowledged that the district’s results might reflect racial biases built into the assessments.

“Assessment tests are built by white people for mostly white learners,” he said. “Are there biases? Yes.”

Equity issues were also present in the behavioral measurements Harrell presented. They showed black, Hispanic and Native American students accounted for higher percentages of unexcused absences, tardiness, and in- and out-of-school suspensions than white or Asian students.

McEwen and Harrell said the report only presented data from the 2016-2017 school year and did not track trends — data with which they agreed to return to the board at a later date.

Information in the data carousel was being used in schools to address equity issues, Harrell and McEwen said. The board would get reports for principals and school leadership teams about the changes and improvements they are making, he said.