Tracking the gap

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Tupelo Public School District showed small gains in closing its economic achievement gap, according to recently released data.
Although the improvement wasn’t dramatic, district leaders said during last week’s school board meeting they are determined to keep the issue in the forefront.
The latest data comes from assessment tests taken at the end of the first semester by a large group of the district’s students. The discrepancy in scores between non-economically disadvantaged students and economically disadvantaged students shrank by half a percentage point from assessment tests students took after the first quarter.
“It is not a significant change, but we are comparing apples to oranges,” said Tupelo Test Coordinator Lea Johnson, who presented the data at the board meeting. “The skills on the first test are not the same skills on the second test.”
All first- to eighth-grade students were tested in English and math, and fifth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students also took a test in science. Meanwhile, high school students enrolled in algebra, biology, English 2 and U.S. history were tested in those subjects.
The assessment tests are given to students several times throughout the year to measure whether they are prepared for the state standardized tests they will take during the spring. They were written by teachers to allow them to see which skills students hadn’t yet grasped and which ones need to be taught again.
They are designed to match the state tests in terms of having the same level of rigor on their questions.
When students took those tests in the fall, 75 percent of non-economically disadvantaged students passed the test, compared to 46.5 of those who are considered economically-disadvantaged. The gap was 28.5 percentage points.
Economically disadvantaged students are those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
On the most recent test, the gap was 27.95 percent.
The district is not required to release the results of these self-designed assessments, but school leaders said they plan to continue doing so in order to hold themselves accountable as they focus on closing their achievement gap.
Leaders pledged to be deliberate in their efforts to address that gap, with the focus being to raise the achievement of economically disadvantaged students while keeping the standards high for all students.
The Daily Journal reported in December that Tupelo’s achievement gap on last spring’s state tests was among the largest in the state. According to the newspaper’s analysis, which only looked at English and math tests by third to eighth graders, Tupelo’s average gap was 36 percentage points.
Seventy-five percent of non-economically disadvantaged students scored proficient on those tests, compared to 39 percent of those receiving meal subsidies. Proficient on the state tests correlates to a passing score on the district’s tests.
The Daily Journal’s series found a similar achievement gap between students of different races: 74.5 percent of white students scored at least proficient on last year’s state tests, compared to 39 percent of black students, for a 35.5 percentage point gap.
Many attributed the district’s racial gap to economics, noting that a higher percentage of black residents are economically disadvantaged. The district has focused its attention on addressing the gap between low-income students and their peers.
That economic gap has decreased on both of the district’s recent common assessment tests. On the first test, the gap for third- to eighth-grade students was 32.3 percentage points (81.1 compared to 48.8), and for the most recent test it was 28.13 percentage points (78.52 compared to 50.39).
The caveat in comparing the data, however, is that the spring numbers come from the state standardized test, while the other two sets come from assessments written by Tupelo teachers. The local tests do use questions from an education database intended to more closely mirror the state test. The district’s next assessment will entirely use questions from that database.
Teachers didn’t have the first set of data for much time before they gave the second test, Johnson said, noting they will have more time to study that information and make adjustments before the next test.
“Part of what we need is more time for teachers to spend with the data,” she said. “The more they know data, the better it gets.”
Johnson said that what is significant to her about the recent data is that it shows several subjects in which low-income students passed at high levels. She said the district can use that data as a benchmark as it continues efforts to decrease its gaps.
Such tests include second-grade English (83.5 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed), first-grade math (69.7 percent), second-grade math (68.8 percent), third-grade math (67.3), fifth-grade math (56.4), sixth-grade English (56.1) and seventh-grade math (55.3).
The fourth-grade English test also saw a large jump in the scores of economically disadvantaged students. Those scores rose by more than 25 percentage points from 47 percent of students passing to 72.2 percent. Johnson said she wants to study that data more closely.
In general, the grade levels and subjects that showed improvements or declines for economically disadvantaged students were the same as the ones that showed gains or falls for the non-disadvantaged.
U.S. history scores were down for students in both groups, and Johnson said she wants to analyze that more closely. She attributed some of that to the fact that the material covered during the second quarter was much more difficult.
Fifth-grade science scores, which were really low for both demographics on the first test, rose by more than 25 percentage points for economically disadvantaged students and by more than 55 percentage points for non-disadvantaged students.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com