New report details educational disparities | March 10, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 10, 2023

New report details educational disparities

School board cites comprehensive report as significant milestone in quest for equity

by Zoe Morgan

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."

Email Staff Writer Zoe Morgan at [email protected]


Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 10, 2023 at 9:47 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

It sure would be useful to provide a definition of "equitable". Also, are known factors like having a two-parent family also considered?

Posted by cmarg
a resident of University South
on Mar 10, 2023 at 11:20 am

cmarg is a registered user.

I wonder if there is a statistic about the gender for the Swift Report. Ironically, today on the Ezra Klein Podcast the talk is with Richard Reeves and the topic is 'The Men and Boys are not Alright'. Quite an interesting podcast. Highly recommend it. It could shed light on some of the data.

Web Link

Cecilia Willer

Posted by Ugh
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2023 at 3:10 pm

Ugh is a registered user.

Equity = related to the dumbing down of the curriculum, increase in learning on the computer, and the illegal practice of holding kids back from the math classes they are qualified to be in. Equity is great but schools still need to teach and be excellent. They are not mutually exclusive.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Mar 11, 2023 at 7:06 am

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

Once upon a time a teacher had the lowest numbers of D’s and F’s in his “course alike” subject before he retired in 2022. Attribute it to dedication to furthering one’s education, putting full effort into lesson and unit design, getting to know students, showing a lot of empathy, and not trying to come off as the expert who will determine their future. All sincere viewpoints were validated, and students were given space to explore and debate multiple perspectives. Yet he was harassed by administration for not doing things their way.

By the way, grade scales had been radically adjusted recently to make D’s and F’s virtually impossible, at least at the middle school. Teachers with “too many” on the books are given “special attention” by administrators. In some cases, they are told point blank to change grades or subtly “reminded” of career options outside of PAUSD.

A recent newsletter authored by a middle school principal lamented the D and F data, and implied that the principal was so disgusted he wouldn’t send any child to the school he runs (do a public records search, it’s true). That begs the question, if he is not accountable for the situation, then who is responsible? At the end of the day, it is the teachers, which may explain why nearly half of them are not happy with school climate.

Never in all the “deep data dives” will 25 Churchill admit that they are a significant contributor to the problems they are trying to solve. Cavalier attitudes towards parents, students, staff, and teachers. The fudging of numbers and misleading statements in newsletters. The unwillingness to engage stakeholders in policy decisions face to face. Regularly violating education codes. Emphasizing things like Niche ratings, or bond ratings (PAUSD will always be solvent unless the economy crashes) are just a few areas of concern.

SWIFT is great. But so are the actual people that you need to engage. They have good data too. [Portion removed.]

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 11, 2023 at 1:27 pm

Anony Mouse is a registered user.

I'm hoping the statistics expert who often posts here will weigh in. This regime produces an avalanche of stats all of which shape a single narrative. Methodology is important - and it's not always transparent. Another classic move is to change methodology every year. Since this will be an annual report card, watch out for changing methods next year. It's important to always control the narrative and keep the Sup. in the limelight. Always be questioning, neighbors.

Posted by Parent of Two
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2023 at 2:16 pm

Parent of Two is a registered user.

The work of Lana Conway and the SWIFT plan is very important. Sad that it felt overshadowed by the performances of the board leadership in the Feb 28 board meeting. Austin oddly quoted a report from 1988, Jesse Ladamirak launched a grandstanding speech. Jennifer D Brienza wiped her tears. Then Shounak Dharap says we are a public school district and we support the floor. He even said - possibly aiming for the many parents who spoke up earlier - that parents who want acceleration should go to private school. It looked like orchestrated political theater out of 25 Churchill.

It’s also unfortunate that Austin sees this as some binary choice between school populations and cannot welcome and serve all the families in PAUSD. We have many families from other countries and cultures, who are afraid of speaking up at a board meeting for fear of being ridiculed the way the people who have been speaking up about math and special Ed have been. No one is against equity, but district leaders feel the need to push back against academic outliers on the upper end and anyone who advocates for them.

Posted by Greene and Paly Parent
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 11, 2023 at 5:47 pm

Greene and Paly Parent is a registered user.

PAUSD "equity" Theatre again. The reports and the comments by the board President demonstrate extreme misunderstanding of statistics and appropriate data. To improve, PAUSD must use evidence-based pedagogy and standardized assessment tools to measure progress.

The use of so many separate subgroups of interest is inappropriate. In particular, Black and PI, there are about 10 black students per grade level per year (!!). The relevant groups are economic status (disadvantaged or not), disadvantaged Latino (about 50-60 per grade level), and disabilities (about 100 per grade level). Other groups are too small or a meaningless mix.

Passing grades should not be used as a measure, especially in a district that applies pressure on teachers to not hand out D/F grades (regardless of student actual proficiency). Doesn't the first chart say that in all groups 90% of grades where C or above? And another says that 75%+ of all students in each group did not have any D/F grades? And some of the groups are tiny.

To see the flakiness: JLS states that only 44 out of its 1001 (4.4% of students) got any D/F grade (!!) But SBAC data shows that 20% of our middle school students are not meeting grade level math standards (but are placed in math courses that are a year ahead of grade level standards). If these grades where a true to proficiency, then we SHOULD expect JLS to have 200 D/F grades (20%) just in math. PAUSD is cheating its students and dead-ends them by handing meaningless passing grades for foundational content.

The report also uses subjective surveys as measures. What does matter (but not used) are objective academic achievement and growth measures, using tools such as iReady, NWEA MAP, and SBAC if necessary. What is telling is that comparing SBAC scores our students, non disadvantaged or disadvantaged are worse off (smaller fraction are meeting grade level standards) than peers in Los Altos (75% of the per students funds of PAUSD) and Cupertino (50%).

Posted by CoCo
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 11, 2023 at 6:47 pm

CoCo is a registered user.

I have been a classroom aide for 15 years in one of the district's elementary schools. Of course we need to look at how to help middle and high school kids meet their academic goals and close the performance gap. But often the patterns for learning/achievement have already been set in the kids' K-5 experience. (It goes without saying that pre-K also has a big impact). If a kid is struggling in the elementary years, and doesn't get the appropriate interventions, school becomes a place to endure, not a place to thrive. And too often kids are not getting the help they need for a variety of reasons. It takes a lot of time and effort to have a child evaluated. And often, as the article suggested, a child may have multiple challenges (learning differences, ELL, missed school, etc). And once a child is evaluated, it takes careful, patient support to help the child succeed. If I had a magic wand, I would ask the district to devote more resources to our youngest learners and help them at the earliest signs of a struggle. It is easy to "graduate" a child out of supportive services when they are ready. It is much harder to "rescue" a child in middle or high school when they are not just struggling, but failing.

Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2023 at 9:38 pm

Ferdinand is a registered user.

Mondoman, cmarg, Ugh, Retired PAUSD teacher, Anony mouse, Parent of Two, Greene & Paly Parents, and Coco--this is one of the best group of comments in awhile--thank you all. You've captured some of the many issues our district office chooses to ignore. I love the "Churchill Theater."

Posted by Down the yellow brick road
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 13, 2023 at 10:50 pm

Down the yellow brick road is a registered user.

Greene and Paly Parent, you are pooping on the parade. There is so much to celebrate! The clever strategy of moving the goal posts and cherry picking data to create equity has brought much to cheer about. Who doesn't like cherry compote? What matters is how people feel, rather than antiquated metrics based on "standards". D's and F's should indeed be forbidden because they make people feel bad and destroy equity. Think of how much money we could save by defining there to be no disabilities. They're all just systemically oppressive labels anyway.


Posted by S. Underwood
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 14, 2023 at 10:30 am

S. Underwood is a registered user.

Dear PAUSD -- It's a bad idea to gauge your progress by measures that are under your control. Nix any part of the analysis that asks yourself what grades you gave out, or variants thereof. It's sadly a trend that's all-too-common across the educational landscape today.

Focus on external, objective metrics. Goodhart's Law can still pop up its ugly head. Trust that our PAUSD teachers will be a bulwark against teaching toward any shallow metrics. Have the courage not to pressure teachers in any way that degrades the value of those external metrics, not to mention the kids' educational experience itself.

Posted by Kelli Hagen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2023 at 1:15 pm

Kelli Hagen is a registered user.

Equity in education begins with culturally responsive teaching. The equity changes PAUSD seeks starts with changing the culture of PAUSD.

As a veteran science teacher I spent my last stint at PAUSD. I was an active member of NARST (National Association of Research in Science Teaching) and spent my career and education focusing on equity in science education. Always the goal was to increase the accessibility of upper division sciences to ALL students; females and URMs (Under-Represented Minorities) especially. From day 1 in the district, I became aware of the “PALY way,” a rigid curricular structure designed to promote/excel the very brightest students in a highly accomplished, competitive community. The flaw of the “PALY way” as I saw it, was the amount of barriers put in place to separate our students into those who are able and worthy and those who are not. This creates a pathway into the highest science lanes that is incredibly narrow and exclusive. Teachers are resistant to changing the culture of PAUSD because it dares to shift the power structure innate in the sciences and our society as a whole.

Teaching the highest laned science and math classes is easy. Teaching AP Chemistry is easy. I was handed the best and the brightest (as evidenced by their prior science grades and math lanes). You, Palo Alto community handed me these amazing students, helped explain mass defect at dinner and got them tutors when needed. Our class earned a 4.9 average on my last year’s AP Chemistry exam. I came to understand that ANY class that earns a 4.9 average on the AP exam is front loaded and designed so for the ease and boasting opportunities for the teachers. We need to offer AP and honors access to those students who barely pass an AP exam and those who will earn C’s in the course (and then we face the problem with our community accepting C’s and B’s, but that’s another essay all together).

Posted by Kelli Hagen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2023 at 1:16 pm

Kelli Hagen is a registered user.

Separating science students by math ability and prior science grades is lazing teaching.

It is my strong held belief that PAUSD should offer non-laned science courses and that all honors designation can be earned within these non-laned course. ALL students should have access to these courses and ALL students should have the opportunity to excel to an honors level if they chose. URMs especially need to know that they are indeed included in these classes and not separated because of past accomplishments/failures. It is also my belief that the number 1 reason we do not offer these options is because our teachers lack the skills, time and administrative support to do the hard stuff in pedagogy, differentiation. Differentiation should focus on a Universal Design for Learning so that ALL levels of instruction/assessment are available to ALL students. The teachers provide, the students choose.

I will add that the few years we offered a mixed ability chemistry class (chem/honors) at PALY, my biggest support was from the community, students and our then administration. The biggest resistance I received was from my colleagues in the science department, not all but many. The cultural change was inconsistent with the “PALY way” and the amount of work, time, effort required to differentiate the curriculum was mostly unavailable. And I am certain that the resistance of changing the culture of PAUSD and shifting the power structure was the underlying cause.

Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2023 at 2:26 pm

Ferdinand is a registered user.

Kelli Hagen: Responding to "It is my strong held belief that PAUSD should offer non-laned science courses and that all honors designation can be earned within these non-laned course. "

Thanks for your thoughts on the rigid culture you experienced. You'll be happy to know that some things have changed. It should be the same at Paly, but at Gunn the prior science grades and math lanes were removed in recent years (not sure when). So students are able to sign up for challenging courses despite not having a specific course grade and the prerequisite classes are not uber-high lanes (eg, for AP Physics 1 or AP Physics the prereq is "Successful completion of any Biology course. Chemistry course recommended.").

Your recommendation for embedding H level within regular courses is a good one, and Gunn did have that in their American Studies class--everyone is in the same class but students could opt to take the regular or H version. It is a good structure, and could be encouraged far more. I love the flexibility of that.

Every department has its own culture, but some of the resistance to change can also come from the district in terms of what they will fund/finance. There is a lack of district leadership and energy in having the type of vision you've described. Perhaps you could offer your thoughts to them directly? I don't think most of them read the online comments. Thanks for adding your voice.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 17, 2023 at 5:17 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

Culturally responsive teaching. Just wow.
How about personal responsibility and accountability for oneself.

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