The Education Trust, which works to "identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps," receives support from foundations including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
To arrive at the overall "D" grade, Palo Alto schools were rated in six subcategories, earning one B, one C, one D and three Fs. Those grades were assigned, respectively, to the following rankings:
Palo Alto ranked 59th out of 147 districts in "performance levels among students of color"; 103rd out of 147 districts in performance of low-income students; 139th out of 145 districts in "improvement among students of color"; 142nd out of 145 in improvement among low-income students; 125th out of 128 districts in "size of achievement gap between African-American and white students"; and 140th out of 142 districts in the size of achievement gap between Latino and white students.
A seventh subcategory on "college readiness" was omitted for Palo Alto because it did not have at least 100 Latino and African-American graduates, the Education Trust said.
Of Palo Alto's 12,286 students enrolled this year, 3.2 percent are African-American and 10.4 percent are Latino. About 9 percent of the district's students are considered low-income, according to the Education Trust.
Palo Alto schools have struggled for years with less-than-successful efforts to bridge the achievement gap. The latest buzzword is the so-called "response to intervention" (RTI) strategy, a systematic effort to head off academic failure through assiduous early intervention.
In addition, Superintendent Kevin Skelly since last year has pushed for stiffer graduation requirements as a way to boost college readiness for the 20 percent of Palo Alto students who typically graduate without having completed the academic prerequisites for California's four-year public colleges.
The stiffer requirements would also include a path for students and their families to negotiate "alternative graduation requirements" in cases where teens have explicit post-high-school plans that do not include a four-year college.
That initiative, expected to come before the Board of Education for the second time in May, is strongly backed by the groups Palo Alto's Parent Network for Students of Color, the Student Equity Action Network and We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which is concerned about reducing academic stress.
We Can Do Better also is lobbying the district to hire an outside consultant to assess whether Gunn and Palo Alto high schools are maximizing opportunities for students by offering — in addition to honors and advanced classes — basic academic lanes that meet but do not exceed state standards.
All of those efforts appear to be consistent with recommendations by the Education Trust West for how school districts should use their "report cards."
Those recommendations include establishing "clear, ambitious goals in a variety of areas, including performance, improvement, gaps and college readiness, and using the data in these report cards to help benchmark performance and spur action."
"I think we're doing the right work — we just have to execute," Skelly said last Friday.
The district's four-year-old strategic plan places a priority on helping students who consistently score below "proficient" without specifically breaking it down by race, he noted.
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