Results from this year's Smarter Balanced standardized test indicate that the achievement gap is not only persisting in the Palo Alto school district, it's widening for African-American and low-income students.
In both English language arts and mathematics, the percentage of African-American and low-income students meeting or exceeding standards on the statewide standardized test dropped just below or near to the Santa Clara County average.
On the English exam, 45 percent of African-American students in Palo Alto met or exceeded standards on English language arts, compared to 46 percent countywide and 31 percent statewide. Thirty-seven percent of Palo Alto Unified's economically disadvantaged students met or exceeded standards, one percentage less than in the county. Latino students in Palo Alto did slightly better — 52 percent compared to 37 percent in both the county and state.
By contrast, 85 percent of white students and 92 percent of Asian students in Palo Alto met or exceeded English standards in the 2017 test.
In math, 35 percent of African-American students and 32 percent of low-income students met or exceeded standards, a few percentage points higher than the county averages. Forty-six percent of Latino students met the same bar, much higher than the county average of 27 percent.
Far more white and Asian students also met or exceeded standards in math in Palo Alto — 85 percent and 93 percent, respectively.
At Tuesday's school board meeting, trustees said the results are a concerning indicator that despite concerted efforts to address the achievement gap in recent years, including the creation of a dedicated task force and a district-wide "equity plan," test results for these students are not moving in the right direction.
"What is really disappointing to me with all the focus we've put on MATD (the Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee) and our equity plan (is) we're not showing the progress I would expect to see," said board member Melissa Baten Caswell.
Board member Jennifer DiBrienza said it matters less to her how the school district stacks up against other school districts in the county or state; percentages at these levels are not acceptable.
"We're just not doing it. Even if we were better than them, it's just not good enough," she said.
Vice President Ken Dauber said low-income students' performance is particularly important: It illustrates how the district is doing for students who have less access to outside support or resources such as tutoring, he said.
"The fact that we are not doing as well for those students as for other groups and also that we're not doing better than substantially less well-resourced districts in the state is really concerning," Dauber said.
District staff said they're using the data to inform more specific plans at individual schools to support these students. Dauber asked staff to come back to the board with a deeper data analysis to better understand what's driving the test results.
"If we control for socioeconomic status, do we still see these effects of race, for example?" Dauber asked. "That will help us to understand whether we're seeing discrimination, whether we're seeing resources… It will start to enable us to ask questions like, 'What is it about how our curriculum is being delivered that it seems to work better for students who are well resourced versus not well-resourced?'" Dauber said.
Palo Alto High School senior Richy Islas, the school's student board representative, also urged the district to drill down on results for students with disabilities, particularly to analyze what percentage of low-income students and students of color are receiving special-education services.
The Smarter Balanced results also point to a different kind of problem at Palo Alto Unified: uniquely low participation rates among high school juniors.
This is "one of the lowest participation rates that anybody has heard of," said Chris Kolar, the district's director of research and assessment. "Something that was a bad situation two years ago has continued to deteriorate over the last two administrations (of the test)."
This year, 310 students at Gunn and 174 at Paly opted out of the test with their parents' permission, according to the district. A significant number of students simply didn't show up for the test: 231 at Paly and 56 at Gunn.
Kolar, who said he worries about the low participation trickling down into the middle schools, asked the board for support in launching an initiative to "energize the community and message the parents about the importance of participation."
Board member Todd Collins agreed, calling it an "all-hands-on-deck kind of situation." The lack of high school data could skew the district's ability to understand how to improve outcomes for minority students, for example, he said.
He asked interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks to "come back with a plan on how we can really attack this with all of the resources we have."
Baten Caswell disagreed, suggesting that the district consider advocating for more established tests like the ACT or SAT as potential replacements for the Smarter Balanced exam.
When the computer adaptive exam was rolled out several years ago to replace the Standardized Testing and Reporting program, it was hailed as a new kind of standardized test that would better gauge student mastery and skills.
Baten Caswell argued, however, that the new test provides limited value to high schoolers "doing so many different things."
Senior Advait Arun, Gunn's student board representative, took the test last year, but said other juniors "felt entitled to the fact that they didn't need to," instead taking the time off to work on assignments or catch up on sleep. He said many concluded that the test wouldn't impact their priorities at that time of the year — namely, grades and college admissions.
DiBrienza attached less importance to this particular test. As long as schools are helping students that other assessments indicate are in need of extra support, "that's the most important thing," she said.
California schools are required by federal law to meet a 95 percent participation rate on the Smarter Balanced test. Schools with federal Title I status, meaning they have high percentages of low-income students, could face losing federal funding if they don't meet the participation threshold. Paly and Gunn are not Title I schools, but other schools in the district are.