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Alachua County school performance drops and gap widens between black and white students

OPINION

BY LEN CABRERA

While Alachua County Public Schools officials continue to focus on masking kids and getting face time on CNN, student performance continues to decline, and the black-white performance gap continues to increase.

In August 2018, the school district announced an equity plan with the goal of narrowing the performance gap between white and black students. During the 2018-19 school year, the performance gap widened, and overall student performance fell below the state level for the first time in the five-year window of available data. Our report from September 2019 can be found here

COVID-19 gave school administrators an excuse to skip testing and avoid accountability for their misguided priorities and failed policies, but now the data from the 2020-21 school year is available, and the trend continues: overall performance decreased in both English and math, and the black-white gap continued to grow in both areas.

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The Florida Department of Education Information Portal has test data since the 2014-15 school year, with 2019-2020 missing because of COVID-19. Student performance is reported as the number of students who score satisfactory (3) or better on their Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) or end-of-course (EOC) exams. The performance gap between black and white students is the difference between these percentages.

Between the 2018-29 and 2020-21 school years, Alachua County’s overall math performance dropped 6.6 points, from 54.4% to 47.8%–remember, this is this percentage of students scoring at a “satisfactory” level or better, and it was less than half of students in the last school year. The state’s math performance plummeted from 57.9% in 2018-19 to 47.1%, suggesting that school closures, quarantines, and online education were very harmful to students. 

As many people warned, the myopic COVID-19 policies had a greater impact on poorer students. Since a larger percentage of black students are poor, that led to an increase in the black-white performance gap. The gap at the state level rose from 29.1 to 33.8 points. In Alachua County, the gap grew from 44.6 to 45.9 points, with 66.9% white students scoring satisfactory or better in math, compared to 21.0% for blacks. These are down from 72.3% and 27.7%, respectively, in 2018-19.

Alachua County’s overall performance in English Language Arts (ELA) dropped 2.9 points from 56.3% to 53.4%, while state-wide performance dropped from 55.4% to 51.7%. The county’s black-white performance gap grew 1.2 points, from 45.2 to 46.4 points, with 71.9% of white students scoring satisfactory or better compared to 25.5% for blacks. Again, both groups did worse than 2018-19, when it was 74.1% for whites and 28.9% for blacks.

The School Board’s equity push was spurred by the January 2018 report, “Understanding Racial Inequity in Alachua County,” prepared by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR). The report used data for the 2015-16 school year (see page 12), using “Reading” (English Language Arts) for third graders and FSA Mathematics for eighth graders. For reading, the percentage who scored 3 or better was 74.0% for whites and 27.7% for blacks, an astonishing 46.3-point gap. For math, it was 47.1% for whites and 22.3% for blacks, a 24.8-point gap. 

Using this limited view of student performance, Alachua County has narrowed the English performance gap, but the results was exactly what I warned about in 2018: “Equity is often achieved by bringing down the performance of the top students.” Third grade ELA performance for 2020-21 was worse for whites (70.1%) and slightly better for blacks (29.4%), narrowing the performance gap to 40.7 points. However, eighth grade math performance dropped to 40.6% for whites and an abysmal 10.2% for blacks, resulting in a 30.4 point gap, a 5.5 point increase from 2015-16.

The math scores only include eighth graders taking the FSA exams, not those who take the Algebra I end-of-course (EOC) exam–the top students are thus removed from the group who take the 8th-grade FSA math exam. For the Algebra I EOC, the county can brag that the black-white performance gap closed by 1.7 points since 2015-16, but consider the cost: white performance dropped from 75.1% to 62.5%, and black performance dropped from 29.4% to 18.5%.

The county is doing is a great disservice to the entire community, but especially to blacks. Less than 30% of blacks are satisfactory in English (overall and in third grade), and even fewer are satisfactory in math (21% overall, 10.2% in eighth grade, and 18.5% in Algebra). Despite the performance gaps that look favorable to white students, the system is also failing over a third of white students in math. It makes you wonder what exactly the schools are doing all day with these kids.

My conclusion from 2019 stands: “Our education system is broken. Equity is the least of our worries.”

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