Ohio’s first-ever release of student-performance data by race and ethnicity this spring has sparked new alarm over the large gap that often separates students from different groups and is inspiring an urgent drive to close the disturbing academic divides there.
The recent developments in the Buckeye State also illustrate what may lie ahead for all states that will be required to publish such data for the first time beginning in the fall, under the new federal education act.
While seeing the previously undisclosed data has been painful and often difficult, many Ohio leaders say it’s a call to action.
Some 250 educators, parents, and lawmakers gathered May 31 at the Statehouse in Columbus to kick off a “Close the Gap” Ohio campaign, which seeks to build momentum for tackling such issues as teacher training, school funding adequacy, home literacy, and remedial help for low-performing students.
Similar meetings will be held at schools around the state in the coming months.
“The cover needed to be taken off these numbers,” said Sen. C.J. Prentiss, a Democrat from Cleveland who organized the event. “Without the data, we can’t respond.”
Ms. Prentiss, a former teacher and state school board member, said Ohio can’t afford to ignore the low performance of minority students. She points to statistics that she describes as “horrific.”
For example, the data released this spring shows that 11 percent of African-American students in 7th grade, the first class that must pass more-rigorous 10th grade achievement tests to graduate, passed all five tests on last year’s state proficiency exam, compared with 43 percent of white students.
Also last year, only 59 percent of black students in the state graduated, compared with 85 percent of whites.
In order to get the data out, the Ohio legislature passed a measure last year that—along with developing core academic standards and a new state testing system—required schools to release data on achievement-exam results, attendance, and graduation by race and ethnicity.
For the first time, state report cards sent home to parents this year included that information.
Ms. Prentiss, who also chairs the education committee of the Washington-based National Black Caucus of State Legislators, said the idea for Ohio’s achievement-gap campaign grew out of a report by the black caucus late last year urging state leaders to draft plans to improve the achievement of minority students.
Nonetheless, Ohio is one of several states under fire from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for not responding to a call for educational equity plans. The NAACP has threatened to file civil rights complaints against those states. (“NAACP Threatening States That Lack School Equity Plans,” May 22, 2002.)
Officials of the Ohio Department of Education have said the department will send a plan to the group.
Meanwhile, Ms. Prentiss says any effort to expand opportunities for minority students must include parents, church leaders, and community activists as much as education officials: “We are billing this as shared responsibility.”
Ohio’s efforts to bridge the achievement gap comes as the federal education act signed by President Bush in January is putting new pressure on states and districts to close these gaps. The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires that performance within different racial and ethnic subgroups be published beginning in next school year, and improve over time.
As of December 2001, there were 17 states that presented student test scores by either race, income, limited English proficiency, or other demographic categories. Texas, for example, has broken down student-achievement data for at least a decade.
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia still do not release test scores by subgroup.
Just as in Ohio, releasing such information can be complicated. Openly discussing racial differences in achievement is often a sensitive matter for educators and policymakers. Some observers worry that separating school performance by race, particularly without talking about obstacles such as poverty, reinforces damaging stereotypes about the ability of minority students.
But Kati Haycock, the director of the Washington-based Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization that works to improve the achievement of poor and minority students, said that narrowing the gaps between different racial and ethnic groups is the most critical issue facing educators.
For too long, school districts viewed as successful have been able to mask the poor performance of their minority students because they have not been forced to confront the reality of racial disparities in the data, Ms. Haycock contended.
“The places getting better results are really focused on what’s going on in the classroom,” she said, adding that there are many examples of successful schools in which most students are from poor or minority backgrounds.
Ohio’s state superintendent of public instruction, Susan Tave Zelman, says she is committed to building a system in which more than just students from certain neighborhoods or backgrounds have the opportunity to succeed.
“Demographics is not destiny,” said Ms. Zelman, who will ask the state school board next month to start a task force on achievement-gap issues. “We are very much committed to equity. All children can learn at high levels.”
Some Ohio districts are already making progress in narrowing gaps with an instructional technique imported from Texas.
Data at Work
Ten districts in the Cincinnati area are using a data-driven strategy to improve school achievement. The method, know as the Brazosport technique, originated in the Brazosport Independent School District, southwest of Houston.
The approach focuses on using data from student assessments to help shape teachers’ instruction around the individual needs of learners. Frost Elementary School in Ohio’s Mount Healthy district, which has the highest concentration of poor and minority students in the school system, piloted the technique this school year.
The school, which normally has the poorest test results in the district, posted the largest gains on district assessments this year. While achievement gaps remain, progress is being made. David Hornine, the superintendent of the 3,800-student district, said the approach would be added to the system’s four other elementary schools in the coming fall.
“All kids can learn, but some of them are going to need extra help,” Mr. Hornine said. “If you give them that extra help, it’s just a matter of time before you close the achievement gap.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as Ohio Faces Up to New Achievement-Gap Data