Student Achievement

Black-White Achievement Gaps Go Hand in Hand With Discipline Disparities

Researchers say those disparities are linked
By Sarah D. Sparks — October 16, 2019 4 min read

Gaps between black and white students in school suspension rates and academic achievement may be two sides of the same coin, according to a massive new national study.

The study, based on data from more than 2,000 school districts, finds the two racial disparities are tightly intertwined, compounding challenges for students of color and the educators trying to support them.

“These disparities are two things the districts think and care a lot about,” said Francis Pearman, an assistant education professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the lead author of the study.

But he said that education leaders may not connect the dots in school improvement efforts. “We’ve been talking about interventions for the achievement gap and interventions for the discipline gap really as separate projects. ... What this work is suggesting is that we should start thinking more expansively about the impacts of these interventions ... potentially having spillover effects on each other.”

Based on their findings, the researchers also warned there could be unintended academic consequences from the federal Education Department’s decision to roll back 2014 guidance intended to ensure students of color were not punished more harshly than their white peers. “The results ... should caution against such moves,” they concluded.

Pearson and colleagues from the University of Florida, the University of Louisville, and Drexel University compared nationally representative district data from the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years, using federal civil rights data on school suspensions and data on racial achievement gaps from the Stanford Education Data Exchange. The analysis focused on racial disparities in grades 3 through 8.

It showed students of all races faced higher suspension rates in districts with bigger racial achievement gaps—but they took a particular toll on black students. For every 10 percentage-point increase in a district’s gap in math and reading performance between white and black students, there was a 30 percent larger black-white gap in suspension rates than the national average for similar districts.

Likewise, a school district with a 10 percentage-point wider disparity in suspensions between black and white students would have a black-white achievement gap that was 17 percent larger than the average for similar districts nationwide.

“The simple fact that these districts [with discipline gaps] have stark disparities in achievement between black and white students, suggests there’s something about the disciplinary environment of that school that is adversely affecting not only black students but also white students,” he said.

Those links between suspensions and test performance remained significant for black students even after the researchers controlled for other district characteristics, such as parents’ education levels, the concentration of poverty among students, and the level of racial segregation among districts.

That finding “speaks to a broader issue ... that students of color in general, and black students in particular, face a unique constellation of challenges within schools, and that constellation of factors are not reducible to their socioeconomic status,” Pearman said. “When we attempt to simply talk about black students through the lens of their socioeconomic status, we miss a lot, and consequently we are not able to serve them as well as we otherwise could.”

The study comes as districts nationwide grapple with ways to close racial gaps in both academic achievement and discipline. The study didn’t tease out whether inequities in achievement cause the gaps in discipline or vice versa, but other recent studies have highlighted how the two areas can interact. For example, a series of studies by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that for every 100 black students enrolled, more than a month of school was collectively missed due to suspensions. And a Miami University meta-analysis found students who are suspended out of school are at higher risk of not only lower academic performance, but also disengagement and eventually dropping out of school.

The Equity Project at Indiana University Bloomington found diverse districts that are able to raise test scores and reduce suspensions at the same time provided teachers significant training and support to find new ways to discipline students, and regularly used data to identify and address academic and discipline gaps as they came up. And one Virginia instructional coaching program also led teachers to write fewer and more proportionate discipline referrals for black and other students in their classrooms.

The researchers also studied white-Hispanic gaps in discipline and academic performance, but there were no significant connections between them for Hispanic students once other district factors were taken into account.

The study was published this morning in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. It represents the first in a planned series on academic and discipline gaps. The researchers intend to dig into how these disparities affect each other at the school level, and in schools and districts with different racial compositions of students.

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