Disparities in student achievement have long plagued school districts throughout the country, and Palo Alto Unified is no exception. Looking to address these inequities, district staff are for the first time pulling together data spanning a diverse array of metrics to analyze collectively.
Known as the "SWIFT Report Card," it compiled data on areas including test scores, grades, chronic absenteeism, suspensions, special education placement and school climate surveys. "SWIFT" refers to the Systemwide Integrated Framework for Transformation, an overarching diversity, equity and inclusion plan that the school district developed in 2021.
The report card showed improvement in some areas — including shrinking disparities when it comes to grading practices and special education placement — but big gaps remain across nearly all indicators.
Latino students were more than 3.5 times as likely as white students to be suspended last school year. Kids from low-income families were less than half as likely as the overall student population to meet state standards in math. Over 20% of students with disabilities were considered chronically absent last year.
A student's race, income level and disability status have long been predictive of their success in local schools. That's something the Board of Education, which reviewed the report last week, wants to change. The SWIFT Plan's definition of equity entails creating a system where "demographics no longer predict experiences or outcomes."
According to Board President Jennifer DiBrienza, success only will be achieved when it's no longer possible to guess a child's demographics by looking at their outcomes in the district.
"We are far from that — and we've always been far from that," DiBrienza said, noting that for a long time many in the community didn't view the disparities as being fixable. "Until we get there, we are not a successful district."
The fundamental change that the SWIFT Plan brings is a shift in the district's focus from an analysis of inequity on an individual basis to a systemic one, district officials said.
"Instead of looking at the kids as the problem, it's identifying the system as what needs to change and adapt," DiBrienza said.
For Board Vice President Jesse Ladomirak, part of the problem has been that, historically, Palo Alto and other school districts have viewed disparate outcomes as a bug in the education system rather than a feature of it.
"Our system is designed to get exactly the results that we've been getting. It's a feature of our system, not a bug," Ladomirak said. "So if we need to get different results, we need to change the system."
Addressing systemic barriers means asking questions such as whether the curriculum is Eurocentric and whether students are able to bring their authentic selves into classrooms without judgment, Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Student Affairs Yolanda Conaway said. It also includes giving staff training to make sure bias isn't showing up in their work, she said.
"We're analyzing our systems to make a determination on whether there's some inequities breeding there that we need to disrupt," Conaway said. "And that's not always easy because when you start to make changes and you start to feel that transformation, people do go back to that idea that 'something must be taken away from me in order for this to happen,' rather than seeing equity as this benefit for every single student and staff member and community member."
Progress emerges in certain areas
The data that the board reviewed last week showed improvements in certain areas, including disparities in grades. All but one of the district's identified focus groups met the board's target for increasing passing grades last school year. The goal is for each group to improve by at least 3 percentage points annually.
When looking at the share of grades given to middle and high school students in the second semester of last school year that were a "C" or better, all groups except Black students saw at least a 3 point increase compared to the year prior. Black students saw a 2.1 point gain.
Some groups saw larger increases, including a 7 point jump for those learning English, a 5 point increase for Latino students and a 4.8 point improvement for students with disabilities.
As with many areas, gaps still remain between groups. Teachers assign Black students a grade of "C" or better 75.7% of the time, compared to 86.9% for white students and 90.1% for Asian students. For Latino students, it's 78%.
The district also is seeing improvement in special education placement, an area that has historically had substantial disparities. The state has identified Palo Alto Unified as having "significant disproportionality" in its placement of Black and Latino students in special education. When children are inappropriately placed in special education, they can quickly fall behind, the report card notes.
One area where the state has identified significant disproportionality is in students identified as having a "specific learning disability," which is one of the categories under federal law that entitles a student to special education services. In the 2019-20 school year, 58.4% of students newly identified as having a specific learning disability were Black or Latino. Last school year, that share had dropped to 28%. Despite the improvement, Black and Latino students are still overrepresented, since they make up just 16.7% of the student body overall.
Improvement, but widening gaps
There were some areas in which the district saw numbers move in a positive direction while still failing to hit the 3 point improvement benchmark that the board set.
When it came to meeting standards on the state English language arts exam, all identified student groups improved last school year compared to the prior year, but only students with disabilities and Pacific Islander students saw a more than 3 point improvement.
In math, only Pacific Islander students exceeded the 3 point mark for improvement on the percent of students meeting state standards. A number of groups — including low-income students, English learners, Black students, Latino students and those who are homeless — actually saw declines in the share of students passing the test.
One challenge when analyzing the data is that certain student groups are small, meaning that changes in outcome for just a handful students can swing the numbers. For example, there was a 10.6 point increase in the share of Pacific Islander students meeting state standards in English last spring, but only 47 students took the exam.
Students can also be members of multiple groups, such as a child who both has a disability and comes from a low-income family.
The district's flat 3 point benchmark for all goal areas may also mean that certain indicators are harder — if not mathematically impossible — to reach.
When it came to suspensions, some groups had a lower than 3% suspension rate to begin with. For example, 2.1% of Latino students were suspended in the 2018-19 school year, meaning that a 3 point decline would put the number below zero. The group did see an improvement in suspension rates, with 1.8% suspended last year.
According to Conaway, now the first SWIFT Report Card has been finished, the Board Equity Oversight Committee — which is made up of DiBrienza and fellow board member Shounak Dharap, as well as district administrators — will review the data in more detail and may create targeted benchmarks for each area to use in the coming years.
Regardless of the benchmark set, there are still sizable gaps in suspension rates. Last school year, 0.5% of white students and 0.2% of Asian students were suspended, compared with 1.8% of Latino students and 4.5% of Black students. There were 3.1% of students with disabilities and 2.5% of low-income students who got suspended.
Assessing school climate
The SWIFT Plan goes beyond metrics like test scores, discipline and attendance to consider how students feel on campus and what the school environment is like. Board members, including DiBrienza and Ladomirak, say that for achievement gaps to close, all students need to feel included and valued.
To assess school climate, the district gave students a survey, formally called the Panorama Social and Emotional Learning Survey, last fall that covered a wide variety of areas. Students had taken a version of the survey in the past, but it had fewer questions. The fall 2022 data will serve as the baseline for future years, Conaway said. Because the questions changed last fall, longitudinal data isn't available for many metrics.
One area of the survey that did have comparative data was in the percent of secondary students who had a favorable perception of their school's cultural awareness, which increased 16 points from 45% in the spring of 2022 to 61% in the fall.
More comparative data was available for teachers and staff, including a 3 point improvement (from 50% to 53%) in the share of teachers with an overall positive impression of school climate. For other staff, it was a 9 point increase from 59% to 68%.
While longitudinal data largely isn't yet available for students, the report card does lay out how individual groups compare to the student body overall. At the secondary school level, Black students were 11 points less likely to have a favorable perception of their school's cultural awareness and action, as well as its diversity and inclusion. Black students also ranked school climate 9 points lower and school safety 7 points lower.
At the elementary level, it was more mixed, with Black students reporting higher scores for school climate and teacher-student relationships, but lower scores on school safety and sense of belonging. The sample size was smaller at the elementary level, with 33 Black students answering the survey, compared to 81 secondary students.
The Panorama survey also allowed students to self-select their demographic characteristics, which Conaway said has the benefit of giving students the opportunity to describe themselves, but doesn't give the district a way of ensuring the accuracy of the selections, which can be a particular challenge for younger elementary school children. Administrators will consider whether to continue to use self-selection in the future, Conaway said.
Because of the way the report was set up, students also weren't given the option to select Latino or Latino as a racial category. This is similar to the U.S. Census, which doesn't list Latino or Latino as a race but rather includes it as a separate yes/no question on ethnicity.
The self-selection did give the district opportunities to identify potential challenges for groups that aren't typically identified in other metrics. For instance, the district saw far lower ratings for Vietnamese students of their experience on campus, compared to other groups. That's prompting the district to dive deeper into the challenges these students may be facing, Conaway said.
Challenges grow in some areas
While a number of metrics saw improvements, there were areas where the data has worsened over time, including when it comes to chronic absenteeism.
The state considers any student chronically absent if they miss 10% or more school days, regardless of the reasons for the absence. All student groups saw an increase in chronic absenteeism in the 2021-22 school year, compared to the year prior, including some sizable jumps.
Last school year, 23.8% of low-income students were chronically absent, compared to 7% the year before. Latino students' absenteeism jumped from 5.5% to 21.5%, while Black students' absenteeism increased from 6.2% to 19.7%. White and Asian student groups also saw large spikes, going from 2.6% to 10.9% and 1.1% to 4.9%, respectively.
Chronic absenteeism has jumped throughout the state, and DiBrienza noted that part of the challenge is that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted schools to urge students to stay home if sick. With a roughly 180 day school year, missing two weeks because of a COVID-19 diagnosis could get a student more than halfway to being considered chronically absent. The 2020-21 school year also was partially conducted online, which may have impacted absence data, compared to the following year, when students were back in person.
Another area that the district is tracking is the percent of graduating seniors who meet admissions requirements to the University of California and California State University systems, known as "A-G eligibility." Last school year, Latino students and low-income students met the district's benchmark, with a 4.36 point and 3.61 point increase, respectively. Students with disabilities and those learning English each saw slight declines of 0.50 points and 0.25 points, respectively. There weren't enough Black, Pacific Islander or homeless seniors to report data.
Large gaps still remain in A-G eligibility, with 73.68% of Latino students being A-G eligible, compared to 89.66% of white students and 96.14% of Asian students. The biggest disparity is for students with disabilities, only 38.94% of whom met the A-G eligibility criteria.
The report also includes two goal areas for which quantitative measures are harder to come by: student supports and educator/leadership development. To assess progress in these areas, the report card lists a number of qualitative changes. These include designing a Multi-Tiered System of Support to assess and address students' needs, as well as assigning 25 multicultural affairs liaisons to schools throughout the district.
While the report shows that the district is far from achieving equitable outcomes for all student groups, board members celebrated the progress of having this kind of comprehensive report in the first place.
"I think we're all at a point where we agree that we're not going to make progress on these things unless we identify what success looks like and that we're measuring it," DiBrienza said. "Just the fact that we have the report and that we expect it to be a regular thing is progress."
Correction: In the chart, "Change in chronic absenteeism by student group," the original percentage point increases/decreases from 2020-21 to 2021-22 school years were incorrect. They have been corrected.