OUR OPINION: Make achievement gap a permanent emphasis

By NEMS Daily Journal

The Tupelo School Board’s public statements last week about closing the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers from better home/family financial situations is the kind of information, with statistical backing, the board and district officials should share regularly with the district’s constituents.
Interim Superintendent David Meadows said Tupelo needs “to address it and keep it in front of the community until every level of discrepancy is exhaustred, and without lowering the expectations for our highest-performing students.”
We agree.
Closing the achievement gap in Tupelo is integral to lifting the district’s overall performance measured by state-mandated tests, and more importantly, better educating the students whose educational attainment focus needs the most encouragement.
As reported in the Daily Journal’s special series of articles on the achievement gap in late December, analysis of state test results showed that about 75 percent of third-to-eighth grade students in Tupelo who don’t live in poverty scored proficient on those math and language arts tests.
“Only 39 percent of those receiving federal meal subsidies reached that mark. The 36 percentage-point gap was among the largest such gaps in the state,” education reporter Chris Kieffer wrote of the spring tests.
The designation “Proficient” is the success word for results on the tests.
Transparency about problems and the specific action taken to address and resolve problems like the achievement gap is immeasurably important in regaining public confidence in the schools.
The achievement gap is not new; it has simply become more evident as the percentage of minority students, who are disproportionately economically disadvantaged, has risen in the system. The years-long inattention to the problem has come home to roost in the form of lower test scores and state rankings and public concern about the system’s effectiveness.
A new and overdue emphasis on resolving the gap doesn’t require any lessening of attention and support for students from more affluent situations with better academic records. The district must also ensure it is challenging its higher-performing students to maintain and improve their academic performance.
Last week’s new data came from the common assessment test that is written by teachers in the district, designed to prepare students for state tests. It is given after each academic quarter. Many of its questions come from a database that analyzes the items to ensure they closely match the ones on the state test. It is significant that an average of 81.1 percent of Tupelo’s non-impoverished third- to eighth-graders passed the tests given at the end of the first nine weeks of 2011-2012; a passing score is the correlate to proficient on the state test.
On the poverty side, 48.8 percent of third- to eighth-grade students reached that mark, for a gap of 32.3 percentage points. That data is for language and math tests, the same ones used in the Daily Journal’s analysis.
Including first- and second-graders and four high school tests, the district’s average gap was 28.5 percentage points. Too high by any measure.
It is necessary for comparison to break down the results by economic status because poverty is universally identified as a factor in under-achievement but it is not a mark of lack of intelligence or potential.
Meadows was correct to see encouragement in a gap smaller than in the spring; even though the first nine weeks test was not identical, it was comparable. But a problem that has festered for years will take time and persistence to solve, and that means high priority and regular public accounting by the current administration, the new superintendent when he or she takes over, and the school board in the coming months and years.
The district and board also are observing and learning from other districts with a more successful record of dealing with the achievement gap, which is certainly not exclusive to Tupelo. Clinton is one system that has had greater success. There are others in Mississippi. Perhaps some successful schools not in Mississippi could offer a helpful perspective from their methods and experience.
Last week’s information was a good start, and it must continue transparently, even when the news is not encouraging.