Palo Alto students narrow achievement gap | September 7, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 7, 2012

Palo Alto students narrow achievement gap

Higher scores among African-American, Hispanic students compared to 2008

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto's African-American and Hispanic elementary and middle school students made significant progress between 2008 and 2012, according to test data presented to the Board of Education Tuesday, Sept. 4.

Scores were generally up among all subgroups, but a particular focus on raising achievement among underrepresented minorities appears to be paying off.

The improvement was reflected in an analysis of scores on the California Standards (STAR) Test performed by district statistician Diana Wilmot.

"When we look at closing the achievement gap between the highest-performing and the lowest-performing students (in English language arts), the percentage difference between Asian and African-American students in 2008 was 50.8 and last year it was 33.9 percent between the same groups," Wilmot said.

"There's been progress across Santa Clara County that mirrors that, but in some cases we had a wider gap in 2008 and we've closed it at a faster and greater rate."

Wilmot reported significant gains for African-American and Hispanic students in both math and English.

In 2008, 42.2 percent of African-American students and 47.7 percent of Hispanic students were at grade level in English language arts, but that figure jumped to 62.3 percent of African-Americans and 63.3 percent of Hispanic students this year.

In math, grade-level proficiency among African-American students jumped from 40.5 percent in 2008 to 50.4 percent in 2012. For Hispanics, it went from 48.9 percent four years ago to 57.1 percent.

Wilmot also pointed to some narrowing of the "opportunity gap" — performance of students whose parents have graduate degrees compared to those whose parents just finished high school.

In math proficiency, for example, that gap was 58.9 percent in 2008, but narrowed to 50.1 percent this year.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he was "extremely pleased" with the data.

"These results are good, but you still want them to be better," he said.

"I think we are doing better collaborative work," Skelly said when asked what he thinks is behind the improvement.

"We have teachers who are fired up on behalf of all students. We are thinking more about what our students bring and don't bring into the classroom in terms of their parents and talents, and we are benefiting from the continually increasing interest in education," he said.

Parent Susan Usman, a PTA board vice-president who tracks achievement gap issues for the group, said, "This is really great, positive information and we haven't seen data like this in a long time."

Ken Dauber, a candidate for school board and member of the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, applauded the results, but questioned some of the numbers.

Dauber noted that fewer African-American and Hispanic students were tested in 2012, suggesting it was possible that low achievers were omitted from the 2012 averages.

Parent Sara Woodham Johnson echoed those concerns, noting that 25 percent fewer African-American students were tested in 2012 than in 2008. She, too, applauded the results, but noted that 2008 was a particularly bad year.

Skelly later noted that "Our African-American population is falling fairly steadily," but Wilmot indicated she would re-check the numbers.

"We've made progress, but the gaps are still way too big," Skelly said.

In other business Tuesday, school budget official Cathy Mak said better-than-expected property-tax revenue growth for 2011-12 added $735,000 to last year's bottom line. That, combined with better-than-expected early property-tax projections for 2012-13, could make a positive difference of $3.6 million for the district's $160 million operating budget.

But steep declines in state revenue over the past five years means that revenue to the district is just $447,000 more this year than four years ago.

Combined with enrollment growth, the relatively flat revenue situation means that revenue-per-student actually has declined by 8 percent, excluding locally raised funds from the PTA and the parent-led independent foundation Partners in Education (PiE).

"Even though our financial picture has improved a little bit it's very important that our community continue to support PiE and the PTA and the school district in the coming years," Mak said.

Mak said her conservative budget assumptions already have accounted for a $450-per-student state revenue cut that will be triggered should Gov. Jerry Brown's November tax initiative fail.

Even so, board members Tuesday voted to endorse both Brown's measure, Proposition 30, and another school-revenue measure, Proposition 38. The tally was 3-1, with board member Barb Mitchell abstaining and board member Melissa Baten Caswell absent for the vote.

Mitchell said she was abstaining because the board "won't control any future action by the governor and the legislature on handling these funds, and we simply can't assure in my view that these ballot measures will ensure the health of California public schools.

"There's no significant structural reform in these to secure long-term funding for California public schools. My position is neither positive nor negative. I urge voters to read these initiatives themselves," Mitchell said.

But a board majority said it's important to stand with other California school districts who stand to lose substantial funding if neither initiative were to pass.

"I do have concerns about each proposition — each has aspects I dislike — yet I'm going to support both because the effects of neither passing would be far worse for education in our state," board Vice-President Dana Tom said.

The board also unanimously endorsed its top-priority goals for 2012-13, with particular attention on hotly debated efforts to improve high school counseling programs.

Board members asked that an implementation date for reforms be specified, resulting in language calling for "comparable and high-quality services and outcomes for the 2013-14 school year."

Among the other goals were implementation of the district's new homework policy and results of last year's Elementary Math Task Force and continuation of the district's efforts to "improve social-emotional-physical health and connectedness and expand use of Developmental Assets."

The Developmental Assets comprise a wellness framework developed by the Minnesota-based Search Institute and adopted two years ago by the district.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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