‘Achievement gap’ discussion should have local focus

Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington is hosting community conversations this Friday and Sunday on “Closing the Achievement Gap.” The topic hits close to home.

We typically think of the achievement gap as a national phenomenon – as the gap between test scores for white and minority students. Or the gap between scores for high-performing and “failing” schools.

But thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, individual schools and school districts report test results for “disaggregated groups” of students: those from racial and ethnic categories, students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, special-needs kids and English language learners.

And those results raise questions for the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington. It had some of the lowest test-passing rates in Indiana this year for students from low-income families and for minority students. And it had some of the biggest test-score achievement gaps in the state.

I’ve lived in Bloomington most of my adult life, and I can’t think of a good reason why this should be the case. We know that poor kids are less likely to pass standardized tests than middle-class or affluent kids. But is poverty in Bloomington different from poverty in other Indiana cites?

Why would this community, which prides itself on good schools, be near the bottom for the percentage of poor students who pass ISTEP+ exams? Why would it have one of Indiana’s largest gaps between the passing rate for its paid-lunch students and its free-and-reduced lunch students? And why would the difference in ISTEP+ passing rates between its black students and its white students be one of the biggest in the state?

Here are charts that compare the ISTEP+ passing percentages for paid-lunch vs. free-and-reduced-lunch students at Monroe County schools and five districts that are similar on paper in size and demographics: Bartholomew County (Columbus), Franklin Township on the southeast side of Indianapolis, Lafayette, New Albany-Floyd County, and Vigo County (Terre Haute). For Lafayette, I combined the Lafayette, West Lafayette and Tippecanoe County school districts to approximate MCCSC demographics. That required some guesswork, but the results should be close.


The bar graphs aren’t radically different, but they do show trends. Monroe County schools have the lowest passing rate for students from low-income families; and they have the biggest gap between paid-lunch and free-and-reduced-lunch students.

Here are similar charts that compare passing rates for non-Hispanic white students vs. those for African-American students. Again, Monroe County doesn’t stack up so well.


Some readers may rightly take issue with drawing conclusions from test scores. Certainly an overemphasis on testing has done serious damage to our schools. Test scores shouldn’t be used to label schools – or, as Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz points out, to label students.

On the other hand, if demographically similar students score worse in one school district than in others, we should take note. Data can’t tell us everything, but data can and sometimes should motivate us to ask questions. In this case, the question is: Why?

The Ivy Tech sessions, part of the National Issues Forum developed by the Kettering Foundation, are Friday from 6- 7:30 p.m. and Sunday from 2-3:30 p.m. at the John Waldron Arts Center in Bloomington. See the Ivy Tech news blog for more information.

8 thoughts on “‘Achievement gap’ discussion should have local focus

  1. Great look at these issues. It always bothers me when MCCSC aggregates the district’s data in a way that ignores these problematic disparities in the community. We need to have a conversation about better socioeconomic integration in our schools, which is shown to improve educational outcomes. I plan to be at the event on Sunday!

    • I wish I could have attended the Ivy Tech community conversations. I would have expressed exactly what you said about socioeconomic integration as being a high priority need in our community. There is so much push back due the perceived method of integration–redistricting and bussing. The proponents for “neighborhood schools” and arguments regarding increased transportation costs are strong. The last redistricting was enough to turn our community upside down and create enemies between friends–which is a barrier to revisiting the issue. However, if we can point to other successful means to accomplish integration (there are other models and communities who have implemented it without force) and point out the benefits for ALL children we may have a shot. I think socioeconomic segregation is one factor in some families wanting charter schools (I could be wrong)? Keep talking Mr. Hinnefeld and Ms. Myerson, we need to keep this conversation going!

  2. What are the percentages of special ed. and ESL students within Bloomington’s low income group? Do they differ substantially to the demographically similar districts?

    • That’s a good question. I wouldn’t think they would different substantially but I’m not sure. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen data at that level — SpecEd and ELL students WITHIN the universe of free and reduced-lunch students. I have seen percentages of SpecEd and ELL by corporation, but I’m out of town and not sure I’ll have a chance to look these up right away.

    • Overall (not just free and reduced lunch), Bloomington has a lower percentage of special ed than the others except for Columbus. Overall, Lafayette and Columbus have more ELL students and the others don’t seem to differ all that much. (These Lafayette figures are just for the Lafayette school district, so that’s not apples to apples; too tired and distracted to try to add in and pro-rate the percentages for West Lafayette and Tippecanoe).

      Corp ID Corp Name ELL N ELL % Special Education N Special Education % Total Enrollment
      0365 Bartholomew Con School Corp 897 7.77% 1415 12.26% 11541
      7855 Lafayette School Corporation 1060 14.55% 1205 16.54% 7284
      5310 Franklin Township Com Sch Corp 305 3.53% 1339 15.49% 8645
      5740 Monroe County Com Sch Corp 330 3.03% 1585 14.56% 10884
      2400 New Albany-Floyd Co Con Sch 227 2.01% 1801 15.93% 11307
      8030 Vigo County School Corp 211 1.35% 3115 20.00% 15573

    • Actually Lafayette wasn’t that hard to figure. For the three districts combined — Lafayette, West Lafayette & Tippecanoe, figures are 10.84 percent ELL and 15 percent special ed, both higher than Bloomington:

      Corp ID Corp Name ELL N ELL % Special Education N Special Education % Total Enrollment
      7855 Lafayette School Corporation 1060 14.55% 1205 16.54% 7284
      7855 Lafayette School Corporation 1060 14.55% 1205 16.54% 7284
      7865 Tippecanoe School Corp 787 6.42% 1620 13.21% 12259
      TOTAL 2907 10.84% 4030 15.02% 26827

  3. Pingback: An ambivalent farewell to No Child Left Behind | School Matters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s