Large achievement gaps based on income and race persist in Huntsville schools
Reader Comment: PARCA's so called analysis is nothing more than a decorative description that is misleading and destructive to the community. There is no
discussion on reliability and validity of the test. There aren't any controls in place so that a comparison is valid. They never say it directly, but PARCA has lead the people to believe that they are evaluating test scores when they are actually evaluating (pseudo-analyzing) the percentage of students within a band of score ranges. The false-binomial application of percentage ratios has an additional margin of error. And for some reason the Alabama DOE uses a t-statistic for calculation the confidence interval, instead of the proper Z-statistic.
Ohanian Comment: It's not surprising to take a look at PARCA, the folks that conducted this so-called analysis, and see that the board of directors is headed by the president of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. The make up of the Schools Foundation is also revealing. See link below.
by Challen Stephens
Three years ago, I was pulled into a months-long effort on the part of civic leaders to improve the three public school systems of Madison County. The first full day of brainstorming ended in an uproar.
A banker from Hampton Cove, along with several others, contended we were building on strengths, that we already had top flight schools. He had moved here from another Southern town.
But a principal from an elementary school in northwest Huntsville told him of being unable to teach children who came to school hungry, of students who had seldom traveled as far as the mall.
Voices were raised. But the truth was, as it had been for two decades, both were right. Huntsville has long been home to two cities, marked by race and separated by a north/south fault line. That's especially true when it comes to comparing achievement levels between schools.
And that's some of what's found in the latest report from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. The report on reading and math scores, made public in November, is still making the rounds among many of the people who care about city schools.
Dr. John Dimmock, a physicist who retired from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, even did his own statistical overlay. Building on the PARCA data, Dimmock averaged that achievement gap across grades and subjects.
He couldn't find a system with a larger average gap between white and black students than Huntsville. He checked Madison and Madison County, Montgomery and Birmingham and Mobile. Black and poor students in those systems actually scored above the state average for black or poor students.
In Huntsville, white students and non-poverty students for the past four years have beat or kept pace with state averages in reading and math among their peers. But black students and poor students in Huntsville score well below the average for black or poor students in Alabama. As a result, the sheer size of the achievement gap in Huntsville was in a category by itself.
"What that says is, something we're doing is not reaching those particular students," said Jim Williams, who led the PARCA study.
In fact, the gap itself is moving. For the last two decades, there has been a north south divide. That still exists. A dozen Huntsville schools, 11 in north Huntsville and one to the southwest, were labeled persistently low-achieving this spring.
But as a rule, parents flee poorly performing schools. While some moved to the county, hundreds each year use federal transfers to send children on a bus to south or west Huntsville.
Transfers haven't erased the deficits. What used to be a fault line between schools in different parts of the city is now found within individual schools.
Take Challenger Middle, where half the eighth-graders scored at the highest possible level in math, well above the state average. But when sorted by race, only 14 percent of black students or 14 percent of poor students at Challenger reached that mark last year.
Meanwhile, across the city at Westlawn Middle, more than half of the eighth-graders didn't read on grade level, much less score at the highest level.
Scott McLain, a developer who has been working with the
Schools Foundation, said Huntsville needs a viable school system to sustain economic success. He's concerned.
While Dimmock looked at averages, McLain looked at individual schools, noting strengths at Weatherly or Blossomwood, but finding large gaps at Williams or Whitesburg.
Williams suggested principals look at gaps by school, see in which grades and subjects the at-risk students are falling behind. At that point, Williams said, there may be few teachers involved. Methods can be changed.
Three years ago, disagreement produced results. The banker, Tim Singleton, went to meet with the principal. He became a reading tutor and is still involved in helping schools.
On Wednesday, Singleton told me it's not about awareness, that he believes people know there is poverty in this city. The issue is instead connection. "You meet the needs that are right in front of you," he said.
"I think people are basically good people," he said, offering his first step to closing the gap: "If I could wave a magic wand, I would take all the people with money and have them read to a kid in a Title I school for one hour."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES