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Kent school officials: Testing shows inequity in African American student achievement

Kent-Meridian students congregate after classes earlier this week. A recent assessment of student test scores in the district are noting a difference in test scores district wide regarding the district
Kent-Meridian students congregate after classes earlier this week. A recent assessment of student test scores in the district are noting a difference in test scores district wide regarding the district's African American students.
— image credit: Charles Cortes, Kent Reporter

The Kent School District recently released results showing how students from the district did in a recent round of college assessment tests, and while the district generally did well compared to state and national averages, African American scores continue to lag behind, highlighting what many call the “achievement gap.”

“Our inequalities are present and a real cause for concern,” said Director of Assessment Bob Isenberg.

Isenberg said though the scores are trending up, the gap between the district’s African American students and others do show a cause for concern, despite Kent scores being higher than the state and national average, and higher than they have ever been, though he said, “that’s not saying much.

“With segments of our population, even if the trend looks better, it’s certainly not enough,” he said.

In a presentation before the school board, Isenberg highlighted the scores from several tests, including the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement exams and International Baccalaureate tests.

SAT scores were broken out into a series of graphs and scores.

In total, students from the Kent School District scored an average of 522 (out of 800) on the Reading portion of the test. The average score for public schools in the state is 520 and the national average is 496.

In the math section, KSD students scored an average of 547, well above the state average of 529 and the national average of 510.

“Math is a priority,” Isenberg said. “If it’s math, we do well.”

In the writing portion of the exam, KSD students averaged a 503, one point higher than the state average of 502 and 16 points higher than the national average of 487.

But while the scores were generally good, looking at an ethnic breakdown of the averages shows a clear discrepancy, especially with the score of African American students.

In reading for example, African American students in Kent scored a 460, which while below the overall average for the district is still higher than the state and national average for the group, which are 447 and 425, respectively.

In math, African American students averaged 462, below the district average of 547, but above the state and national averages for African American of 441 and 423, respectively.

The pattern repeats again in writing, where African American students score a 433 average compared to a 503 district-wide, though still above the state (431) and national (416) figures.

The breakout numbers are based on smaller groups. For example, 842 students in Kent took the SAT exam last year, or about half the graduating seniors. Of those taking the test, 479 were white while only 57 were black, or 6.7 percent. District-wide, black students represent 10.6 percent of the student population.

Isenberg said there were high-performing students across all ethnic groups, but said the lack of African American students in some of the more rigorous classes and college tests was disappointing.

Africans American students represent only 3 percent of all KSD students enrolled in advanced-placement courses this past spring, for example.

“What we did find is looking at patterns of rigorous courses, African Americans as a group were underrepresented right from middle school on,” he said. “If students aren’t exposed to rigor they are not going to be able to show the skills a rigorous test requires.”

After the presentation to the board, School Board Member Bill Boyce, the lone African American of the group, said the district must do a better job of addressing the lower-than-average scores from minority groups.

“We should be embarrassed by it,” he said. “Being an African American, I am embarrassed by it.”

Boyce, who was recently re-elected to another term on the board, said he would dedicate his next two years to trying to address the problem.

“I don’t want to see that same report again,” he said.

Both Isenberg and Boyce said that some of the problem with the scores is “cultural.”

“To me, it is a cultural thing we have to do for African Americans and our community,” he said. “It starts at home.”

But Boyce also said we can’t use culture as an “excuse” and pointed to his own children who have all gone on to college or are on track to do so, something he said he and his wife focused on.

“The only question is what college,” he said of his children. “It’s not that you’re not going to go.”

Isenberg said the district is taking a much more active role in making sure all students are prepared for upper-level courses, especially math. He also cited the districts Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, designed to identify students who should be on track for college, but may be the first in their family to do so. Isenberg said the courses help teach kids “how to do school in a college-ready fashion” such as ways to take notes and study more effectively.

He also said the district is expanding its AP program with the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats” but again said the important changes must come at home.

“Whatever cultural/educational/contextual reasons, there’s a lack of equity and there’s a lot at the schools can do, but they’re going to need a lot of help,” he said.

Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and learning Merri Rieger said the district is looking to make sure all students have access to the core curriculum and is working to make sure the curriculums align through the district’s schools as a way to help combat the transient nature of some of the district’s population.

She also said new models of tiered intervention are being implemented at schools to try and identify earlier the students who may need additional help because the earlier they are identified, the better chance they have of success later.

“You’ve got to start in kindergarden,” she said. “Not everyone comes into schools with the same skills and not everyone learns the same skills while they are in school.

“There’s no magic bullet,” she added.

Some students, for example, need to be taught “academic language” so they can better understand and express themselves on the tests.

Boyce agreed.

“Sometimes we wait until high school and you realize they haven’t had the necessary background to take those classes,” he said.

Rieger also said more students of color are taking part in the district’s AP and International Baccalaureate programs, though she admitted “we’re not where we need to be.”

Rieger also said the district is looking into ways to better support parents and to teach them how to help their children be more successful, such as asking more about school and developing better relationships with teachers.

“What is it we are doing as a community?” she asked.

Rieger also said that there is also a “huge paradigm shift” in education to a more “standards-based” reporting system, based on what the child actually has learned as opposed to including outside factors such as homework or extra credit work turned in.

Both Rieger and Boyce also said that new Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas has experience win the past in dealing with the achievement gap, which was one of the reasons he was selected for the position.

“It’s going to be a lot of work,” Boyce said, adding that while small improvements are good, it is not enough. “We need to make a quantum leap, we can;t do these little jumps anymore.”

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