Editor’s note: Socioeconomic status and race are reliable indicators of a child’s likelihood to succeed in school. In this second of a four-part series, we take a look at the achievement gap in Wake County high schools. New installations to the series appear each Monday.
Read more: Our analysis last week explored elementary and middle schools, where we uncovered different trends. Those students consistently outperform the state, but vulnerable students are performing worse than in past years.
Wake County high schools posted strong gains in closing the achievement gap this year, as evidenced by End of Course test passing rates. However, Wake high schoolers are not outperforming the state by as much as in previous years, a Record analysis finds.
Closing the Gap
Like the rest of the country, Wake County faces large and persistent achievement gaps among different groups, with white and affluent children far more likely to succeed.
Such gaps in achievement are often compounded in schools with high concentrations of poor or minority students, such as Southeast Raleigh High.
Southeast is a racially and socioeconomically identifiable school, in that its demographic makeup doesn’t match the rest of the county.
Fifty percent of Southeast’s students are economically disadvantaged—a figure that puts it on the fence of being considered a high-poverty school. Its racial makeup is 72 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and nine percent white.
But Southeast, a magnet school, bucked the trend. The percentage of E.D. students passing all End of Course tests went up by 17 points. Hispanic students’ scores increased by 15 points and black students’ scores by 12 points.
“The biggest thing is showing students that failure is not an option,” said Southeast Raleigh High Assistant Principal Cheryl Munn. “We are making sure that students are in school and in class. And that there behavior is important.”
Like Southeast Raleigh, some of Wake’s other high schools, such as Enloe, took a large chunk out of the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged (E.D.) and economically stable (non E.D.) students in 2011-12. Others didn’t fare as well.
Broughton and Athens Drive High Schools lost ground. Both schools had drop-offs in proficiency across the board, and those drop-offs were more significant for vulnerable groups.
Officials from either school were not immediately available to comment last week.
Competing with the State
It’s worth noting that while Wake is slowly closing the achievement gap in high schools, it’s also losing ground against the state. Traditionally, Wake County has performed well above the state average in test scores.
Problems With Reporting
Determining whether the achievement gap is closing is difficult because we rely on data from End of Course tests. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction doesn’t actually calculate the percentage of students who take the tests.
In third through eighth grade, children are generally required to take EOG reading and math tests. But EOCs aren’t tied to a particular grade level.
A student can be eligible for a particular EOC test — Algebra 1 for instance —in any number of grades, including middle school, though most EOCs are taken in high school.
Such accounting irregularities make it difficult to get a handle on the number of students eligible to take the test versus the number who actually take it, DPI officials say.
They are looking at ways to track participation, but so far the task has proved too elusive.
“Without having participation rate data it is very difficult to make conclusions about the proficiency gap gains or losses across subscores,” said Jayne Fleener, dean of NC State University College of Education.
Dropout totals also effect EOC proficiency rates.
Fleener says some research indicates that those who drop out are also likely to be poor performers academically. But, she said, that alone doesn’t substantiate dropouts artificially increasing proficiency averages.
While changing a school’s culture is one of the keys to success, and the main talking point when it comes to reform, Munn credits much of the gains at Southeast to a data and assessment-driven learning model.
Students are assessed on what they know before each unit of learning in any given class, she said. This enables teams of teachers, called professional learning communities (PLCs) to figure out what groups of students are behind and how they can be brought to speed.
“We don’t look at kids and make an assumption based on what they look like or where they come from,” Munn said. “We look at data and see what that tells us about who is likely to be successful.”
Munn also credited the gains to EVAAS predictive data, which enables administrators to identify students who are likely to be on the border of passing EOC tests.
She also cited other initiatives, including professional development, sharing best practices and even Saturday tutorials.
“For us it was whoever showed up,” Munn said about the Saturday classes, which were designed to improve EOC test scores. “Whoever showed up, we were there to help. It didn’t matter if it was one, five or 10 students.”
But the school cannot rest on its laurels. Southeast’s Principal Johnathan Wall was plucked by the Charlotte school system just last month after the school’s gains.
A new principal is not yet in line and Southeast’s percentage of E.D. students, as defined by those who qualify for free and reduced lunch, is set to go up by 7 percent next year.
Moving a Mountain
Countywide, the EOC proficiency gap between E.D. and non E.D. students narrowed by almost 2 percent last year. Racial performance gaps narrowed similarly.
In elementary and middle school, the socioeconomic gap closed by just two-tenths of a percent.
Despite the tough slog ahead, Wake Schools Superintendent Tony Tata is stalwart.
“We can and will close the achievement gap … When you’ve got 20 or 30 point gaps, you are not going to close those overnight,” Tata told the Record last week. “It’s a marathon, long-haul effort, that requires focused resources.”
Exactly how it can be done is another question. Wake saw some of the biggest gains in its Renaissance schools, which like Southeast Raleigh High, are socioeconomically identifiable by their high percentage of E.D. students.
An extra $1 million dollars was funneled into each of those schools through temporary federal money. As high-poverty schools get poorer, it’s unclear whether such an approach for closing the achievement gap is sustainable.
We’ll look at the causes and the fixes for the achievement gap in our additional parts to this series, which are published each Monday.
You can email Will Huntsberry at email@example.com or follow him on twitter @willhuntsberry or #wakeschoolboard