Proficiency gaps deserve a look

IUPUI faculty member and Indianapolis Recorder columnist Marshawn Wolley makes a provocative statement in a recent piece on Indiana’s 2019 ILEARN results:

“It just doesn’t seem to matter when Black students fail state standardized tests.”

He’s got a point. Everyone has been up in arms about the steep drop in proficiency rates that resulted when Indiana shifted from its former ISTEP test to the new ILEARN assessment. But very little attention has been paid to the gap in proficiency between black and white students.

We also haven’t heard much about other test-score gaps: those involving Asian, Hispanic and multiracial students and the gap between students who qualify for free or reduced meals and those who don’t.

One reason is that they aren’t new. These differences have been with us a long time. And with a new assessment, it’s hard to tell if they grew or shrank this year.

Another reason is that many of us don’t want to give credit to standardized tests. We question their validity, and we’ve seen them misused to grade schools, rate teachers and even shame students.

But I hope school officials are paying attention to the gaps and asking if they can narrow them. Whatever their cause or explanation, we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist.

The disparities are stark. Statewide, 43.3% of white students were proficient on both the ILEARN math and English/language arts assessments compared to 14.8% of black students. Proficiency rates were 56.7% for Asian students, 31.8% for multiracial students and 24.2% for Hispanic students.

And yes, poverty matters. Just 22.9% of students who qualified by family income for free or reduced-price meals scored proficient, compared to 50.9% of students who didn’t qualify. (Gaps are similar, overall, for public, private and charter schools, according to my calculations).

Wolley points out that, in Indianapolis, the black-white gap ranges from 48.2 percentage points in Washington Township schools to 4.9 percentage points in Decatur Township schools. (The main reason, however, is that white students have high proficiency rates in Washington and low rates in Decatur).

Instead of just looking at the overall proficiency rates for your local schools and districts, maybe it would be more meaningful to download Indiana Department of Education data and calculate the gaps between groups of local students. Or check the average proficiency scores for subgroups of local students.

Here are spreadsheets with public school districts sorted by:

No doubt there is more – or less — to the results than the numbers reveal. Some schools and districts have misleadingly high or low proficiency rates for black or low-income students because they have few students in those categories. Schools and districts with heterogeneous student populations (e.g., Washington Township) may have larger gaps than districts where students are similar.

But some details aren’t easily explained. For example, some of the biggest gaps between paid-lunch and free-and-reduced-lunch students are in districts that are thought of as high-performing, including West Lafayette, Westfield-Washington and Monroe County (Bloomington). Some districts where over half the students are “economically disadvantaged” – for example, West Washington, Speedway and South Ripley – have proficiency rates for those students that are well above the state average for all students.

Test scores may not tell us what we wish. But if they tell us something, shouldn’t we listen?

1 thought on “Proficiency gaps deserve a look

  1. Once again, the academic achievement gap is brought up. It’s talked about and talked about but I’ve never seen anybody offer a remedy to close the gap. Why is that? Why aren’t all these people telling you about this gap in our schools, standing in front of the faculty and telling them how to close the gap, and then walking into a classroom and demonstrating how to teach to close the gap.

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