While school district staff celebrated at Tuesday's school board meeting the high achievement of most Palo Alto Unified students on the state's new Smarter Balanced standardized assessment, some parents, the superintendent and one school board member expressed concern about the persistently lower performance of students of color and low-income students compared to their peers.
In Palo Alto, about half of African-American and Latino students met or exceeded the standards in English language arts compared to 85 percent of white students and 92 percent of Asian students, according to the test results released earlier this month. Forty-two percent of African-American students and 48 percent of Latino students met or surpassed standards in math compared to 85 percent of white students and 95 percent of Asian students.
And 37 percent of economically disadvantaged students (students who are eligible for the free and reduced-price meal program, foster youth, homeless students, migrant students and students whose parents did not graduate from high school) performed at or above standards in English language arts/literacy compared to 87 percent of non-economically disadvantaged students. The same percentage of non-economically disadvantaged students performed at or above standards in math, while 39 percent of economically disadvantaged students met or exceeded the math standards.
School board member Ken Dauber called the results "a pretty grim picture" and one the school district has been seeing for a long time.
"I don't think we've seen much progress," he said.
New Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey presented the new results Tuesday night with color-coded bar charts, with the higher scores in green and the lower scores in red and blue. His PowerPoint presentation also included a brightly colored slide that read "Celebration Time."
Kim Bomar, the parent of two African-American students in the district and longtime co-chair of Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), asked for more sensitivity to how these scores relate to and affect everyone in the district, particularly students of color.
"I just want to call for a little bit more sensitivity on how we deal with these numbers because frankly, there's just way too much red and blue in there to call this a celebration when it comes to children of color if everybody in this district really does matter," she told the board.
And though staff repeatedly cautioned that the new test results are only a baseline of information and cannot be compared to past standardized scores, "the pattern certainly is exactly as we've seen in the past" for students of color, PASS co-chair and parent Sara Woodham said.
She noted that although black students make up only 2.6 percent of the school district's overall student population, the fact that nearly half of them are less than proficient must be addressed.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell questioned how to evaluate results drawn from very small numbers of responding students. In particular, she pointed to a slide in Autrey's presentation that notes a significant spike in African-American students' performance in both English language arts and math in fifth grade. From third grade, there is a jump in more than 50 percentage points in the students' achievement, but there were only 17 total fifth-graders.
Dauber also pointed to what he called a "collapse" in high school for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. He urged the district to remedy the situation by looking more closely at structural factors like teaching, curriculum, laning and the effect of high rates of tutoring with students who can afford it and those who can't.
Superintendent Max McGee said that three main issues emerged during high school focus groups held by the minority achievement and talent development committee he convened last school year: underrepresentation of students of color in higher level courses, like Advanced Placement (AP) classes; a lack of engagement in and use of tutorial, a built-in class period for students to seek extra help from teachers; and access to "doing school" in Palo Alto, which means things like being able to afford an external tutor or getting extra support and enrichment over the summer.
Board Vice President Heidi Emberling stressed that the district's identification and support of these students must start long before high school.
"The earlier the intervention, the better," she said a similar plea made by the minority achievement committee, which recommended a series of early education interventions to more effectively change the course of historically underrepresented students.
"We have to be able to talk about connecting with families early on," Emberling said. "You're talking about the invitation to join our district for your child's next 15 years. We have to look at what's going on in terms of community supports, in terms of transportation, access.
"How are we helping with readiness to learn and what are we looking at in terms of developmentally appropriate assessment earlier? And then, what are the interventions and how are we implementing those? That has to be part of this conversation about achievement throughout the district."
In May, the minority committee issued its set of recommendations, some of which the district has already begun implementing this fall. (This includes a new early literacy program the school district is launching next month in partnership with the East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring, or EPATT, program.)
Similar to the picture presented Tuesday night of the Smarter Balanced results, the committee's final report described Palo Alto as a "tale of two cities: a Palo Alto for a high-achieving majority of students, with access to enrichment opportunities and high expectations, and a Palo Alto in which access and expectations for students of color and students from lower-resourced backgrounds are limited."
The board also discussed Tuesday how to address the low participation rates of high school students in the test this spring, primarily by scheduling it around AP and SAT exams rather than immediately before. About 50 percent of the junior classes at both of Palo Alto's high schools opted out of the Smarter Balanced Assessments in April, most of them citing concern about losing two days to a standardized test the week before their AP and SAT exams.
Some also expressed disinterest in spending time on a test that has no real short-term benefit to them.
"We need to sit down with groups of students and understand the motivation and what would be motivating," Baten Caswell said. "It might not personally benefit you much, (but) it does benefit the school, so we have to figure out what to do about that."
While some threw around ideas about offering juniors incentives to take the test like a pizza party, schoolwide picnic or homework-free weekend, Chris Kolar, the district's director of research and assessment, noted that the Smarter Balanced test is now the placement test for English language arts and math for the University of California and California State University schools.
It's also now the official test for biliteracy certification in the state, so students who didn't take it in the spring missed the opportunity to have that listed on their high school diplomas, he said.