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A detailed look at how Alachua County schools are failing kids

OPINION

BY LEN CABRERA

ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. – A previous column used 2021-22 data to show declining overall student performance in Alachua County schools in both English and math with no improvement in the black-white performance gap since the implementation of the county’s equity plan in 2018. Teachers, administrators, and school board members may argue that overall performance is not a fair metric because it includes students whose fundamentals were in place before 2018. However, Alachua County student performance actually looks worse if only third-grade students and progression of student cohorts from third to sixth grade are considered.

The Florida PK-20 Education Information Portal shows student performance data from the 2014-15 to the 2021-22 school years. The data for each grade combine Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) and end-of-course (EOC) exams for subjects like Algebra and Geometry. Students are scored on a scale from 1 to 5, with overall performance measured by the percentage of students who score a 3 (“meets standards”) or better.

Overall performance has dropped since the equity plan was adopted

Between the 2017-18 (pre-equity plan) and 2021-22 school years, Alachua County students’ overall performance in English dropped 4.4 percentage points (56.6% to 52.1%), and math dropped 8.0 percentage points (57.0% to 49.0%). Over that same period, the state performance drops were 2.4 and 6.0 percentage points in English and math, respectively. The black-white performance gap between those periods in Alachua County was essentially unchanged: it was 0.1 percentage point worse in English (44.9% to 45.0%) and 1 percentage point worse in math (45.0% to 46.0%). The state performance gap in English actually improved by 1.4 percentage points. The state’s math gap change was the same as Alachua County, 1.0 percentage point worse.

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Third-grade performance gap in English narrowed but overall third-grade performance dropped

Only considering third grade students between 2017-18 and 2021-22, Alachua County’s black-white performance gap in English narrowed by nearly 5 percentage points (45.0% to 40.1%), but at a cost of a 6.3 percentage point drop in overall performance (56.0% to 49.7%). Overall, white student performance dropped 7.9 percentage points (75.1% to 67.2%), and black student performance dropped 3.0 percentage points (30.1% to 27.1%).

Third-grade ELA performance dropped 6.3 percentage points (56.0% to 49.7%) between 2017-18 and 2021-22, a bigger drop than the state as a whole
Alachua County’s third-grade black-white performance gap in English narrowed by nearly 5 percentage points (45.0% to 40.1%) between 2017-18 and 2021-22
Alachua County’s third-grade white student performance in ELA dropped 7.9 percentage points (75.1% to 67.2%), and black student performance dropped 3.0 percentage points (30.1% to 27.1%).

Third-grade performance gap in math got slightly worse while overall third-grade performance dropped

During that same period, the black-white performance gap in math got slightly worse by 0.6 percentage points (40.0% to 40.6%). However, overall performance was much worse: a drop of 8.4 percentage points overall (60.1% to 51.7%), including a 7.5 percentage point drop for whites (76.3% to 68.8%) and an 8.2 percentage point drop for blacks (36.4% to 28.2%). You read that correctly: less than 30% of black third-graders in Alachua County meet standards in math.

Third-grade math performance dropped 8.4 percentage points overall (60.1% to 51.7%) between 2017-18 and 2021-22, a much bigger drop than the state as a whole
Alachua County’s third-grade black-white performance gap in math got slightly worse by 0.6 percentage points (40.0% to 40.6%) between 2017-18 and 2021-22, slightly smaller than the change for the state as a whole
Alachua County’s third-grade white student performance in math dropped 7.5 percentage points (76.3% to 68.8%), while black student performance dropped 8.2 percentage points (36.4% to 28.2%)

In a Nov. 2018 column, I warned that focusing on the performance gap was unwise because you can narrow the gap by decreasing the performance of higher-performing groups. That’s exactly what we see in this data. I also warned about manipulating the other district-controlled metrics, like suspension rates: “it’s easy to narrow the suspension gap by not suspending students that deserve it.” That seems to have been a factor in the district’s current discipline problem.

Black-white performance gaps grow as student groups progress through school

Another way to assess the school district’s education policy is to look at student performance as cohorts progress through the system. It’s not exact when using aggregated data because students enter and leave the system, but we can look at overall student performance for a given year group. For example, we can compare third graders in 2014-15 to fourth graders the next year (2015-16), fifth graders the year after (2016-17), etc.

Simply comparing the performance of third-graders in 2020-21 to their performance as fourth-graders in 2021-22, Alachua County almost looks good, until it is compared to the rest of the state. Alachua County third-graders in 2020-21 performed better in English as fourth-graders in the next school year (52.5% to 54.9%). That 2.5 percentage point improvement, however, came with a 0.8 percentage point increase in the black-white performance gap. The same data for the state shows a 3 percentage point improvement in performance with a 2.0 percentage point decline in the performance gap.

We see the same thing with math scores. Alachua County third-graders in 2020-21 performed better as fourth graders the next school year by 7.8 percentage points (50.6% to 58.4%). This improvement came with a 1.4 percentage point increase in the black-white performance gap. At the state level, math performance increased 10 percentage points (51.0% to 61.0%), and the black-white performance gap declined by 4 percentage points.

In general, this pattern continues for fourth-to-fifth and fifth-to-sixth grade students in both math and English: performance improved more at the state level than in Alachua County, and the black-white performance gap narrowed more at the state level than in Alachua County.

Comparing multiple year groups is complicated because there was no testing in 2019-20. Because of this, the graphs below only compare third-grade performance to sixth-grade performance for all the cohorts available in the data. For the group that started third grade in 2016-17, fifth-grade performance is used because they did not test in sixth grade.

Using this method, the only group with improved performance between third and sixth grades in English were the third-graders who started in the 2014-15 school year. Students who started in subsequent years performed worse in both English and math as they advanced through the system. In almost all cohorts, the black-white performance gap increased as they progressed through Alachua County schools. Note that the latest two groups (third-graders who started in 2017-18 and 2018-19) have the biggest decrease in overall performance and massive 15-percentage-point increases in the black-white performance gap in math.

With this poor performance in the elementary grades, when students are supposed to be learning the fundamentals, there is little hope for improvement in Alachua County schools in the near future, especially if policies do not change.

  • We have to admit that many students are not book savvy, do not like sitting at a desk, etc. Society still needs workers of that level, and we always will. The real problem is telling them they’re “failures” or no good, etc. Instead, we need to create housing they can buy for a min. wage — if they graduate with a diploma. Classes are scaled for all levels, so accept we have the lower level students, and welcome them into society without prejudice.

    • I think America was pretty much on a good path until Obama came in and pushed the agenda his masters told him to push.

      • the spiral downward started with the formation of the dept of education in 1979 by the carter admin. the obama admin. put the spiral in hyperdrive with his “Discipline Guidance” which was to ensure that schools don’t unfairly discipline students of color, who face suspensions and other consequences at rates higher than their peers. if you have a chance read the online magazine “Quillette”. an article by Shane Trotter “The Real Challenges Facing Public Education” will make you outraged!

    • “Create housing they can buy for a
      Min wage”? What comes to mind is a cardboard box. Part of the great reset is to destroy private property rights and house the worlds’ homeless which means we will all be renters…”you will own nothing and be happy”…

  • All these statistics create more questions that need to be answered: Why are Alachua county schools failing kids?… Is it the woke agenda? Is it the teachers? …What’s the cause of the difference in black & white performance? …Is it genetic? Is it home environment? Is it
    family structure? Is it technology? Is it video games? …

    • Every big university town has a gap like this. Professor/Highly educated families are greater in these areas than others. This accounts for the enormous gap. But for whatever reason… this isn’t considered.

  • The schools are not failing. It is the students and parents that are failing. They are lazy and selfish. No mention of the top 10% kids who are successful with straight A’s? They are America’s future leaders. That shows that the information is available for those who want to succeed. Even an idiot could get a C average – the rest don’t even try. As for the others – the world still needs ditch diggers! Stop wasting tax money and make school optional. Don’t need an education to work at Burger World.

  • Exactly as predicted by so many of the Teachers. Example, our discipline referrals went down significantly. The conclusion they want you to believe is we are a very disciplined learning environment. Reality the classroom Teachers just gave up for lack of Administration support. The troubled misbehaving students were making teaching and learning darn near impossible.
    The entire system must be fixed. Allow Teachers to concentrate on Teaching and return to a sound foundation program. The old excuse of oh those white Teachers just don’t know how to deal with Black children is racist and pathetic. We have extremely talented Teachers who want to and can teach anyone sitting their classroom. It’s not a race issue.
    We just need to enforcement of the behavior environment and return to what’s always worked.

  • Great analysis, but I wonder what percentage of higher achieving students “of color” have opted out of the public school system and into charter/private schools. That could significantly affect the “achievement gap.” I’d also like to see what the “gap” looks like in those schools.

  • The massive rezoning zealots on or soon to on the School Board are all about rezoning no matter what the cost is for fuel for bussing, longer bus rides for kids, more pollution and traffic for School Buses and Parents, less time for homework, reducing property values and resales. Once they implement this they will find something else to blame their continued falling grades, and yes they will fall without a heightend level of discipline. This goes for the disruptive kids and of course their disruptive parents the learn from. Good news is the Charter Schools will double then triple and your kids can have a disciplined environment of learning. Alachua County School have lost that and will never recover.

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