Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Forget the achievement gap -- blacks in Oxford's Class of 2016 have great ACT scores

    There’s been quite a ruckus over a news story stating that the Oxford School District was considering the creation of a separate opt-in school, or school-within-a-school, for students on the federal school-lunch program in an effort to reduce the school's achievement gap.
    The Oxford School Board held a special meeting Friday, Sept. 30, to address community concerns, and released a press release apologizing, and stating that no separate school would be formed.
    The separate academy idea might be a good one for a district with 20,000 students. For a district with 4,000 it just doesn't work for a variety of reasons. I won’t address some of the comments made by Superintendent Bryan Harvey, save to say that they weren’t very well thought out. However ham-handed some of Harvey’s comments might have been, he and the school board do deserve credit for trying to provide the best education possible for every Oxford student. Their heart was in the right place even if their head wasn't.
    There is a huge socio-economic divide in the Oxford student body; although located in the poorest state in the nation, the median price for houses listed for sale in Oxford is almost $250,000. I suspect the disparities of wealth, which often fall along racial lines, cause some real problems when it comes to school management.
    Although the proposed academy was presented as a way to help low-income students, in reality it was almost certainly designed to reduce Oxford’s racial achievement gap, which is  the largest in the state. Last month the high school gave the school board the results of the junior ACT tests, which all students now take; the school ACT average was 22.2; white students had an average ACT score of 24.6 while black students had an average score of 18.1, which was a substantial increase from the year before. On its face this is a huge achievement gap, but when you analyze the reasons for the difference, these numbers are easily explained, and should be a source of great pride for Oxford.
    Oxford has has a tremendous number of near-geniuses; the school’s top quintile is probably equal to any school in the nation, including highly selective schools such as Stuyvesant, the Phillips schools, etc. Oxford is a medical, legal, and academic center, and as such attracts a large number of professionals, researchers, and college professors, along with their children. Most of these affluent, advanced-degree-holders are white or Asian. No matter where you are in the country, children of wealthy professionals or college professors tend to do very well academically. There is nothing that any school can do that will allow other students to "catch-up" to these students.
    Add to this the fact that because of its good schools Oxford has a reputation as a brain-cluster community. Most parents are able to perceive whether their children are far smarter than average at a fairly young age, and quite a number of these parents – overwhelmingly affluent and white – are moving to Oxford specifically to take advantage of Oxford’s quality schools. Again, these students are well ahead of the game when they move into the system. There is nothing the district can do that will cause other students to "catch-up" with them.
    All of these factors distort Oxford’s achievement gap. If you take out the disproportionate number of children of advanced-degree holders, much of the achievement gap simply disappears. Once you do this you can focus on something else, namely that based on 2016 ACT scores Oxford apparently does an outstanding job of educating its minority students.
    According to charts provided by the ACT, a score of 18 is in the 71st percentile in comparison to black students nationally. In Mississippi, the average black student ACT score is 16.6 while the average white score is 20.8. In other words, Oxford, with last year's average black ACT score of 18.1, is doing an outstanding job of educating its minority students in comparison to other Mississippi school districts, at least insofar as the Class of 2016 is concerned.
    I've tried to find the ACT average for black students at other Mississippi schools, but Oxford is one of the few school districts to have this information available online. It is possible, however, to compare the performance of Oxford's black students to the whole-school average of schools that are made up of 90 percent or more black students. Here are some of those figures: Aberdeen,  16.7; Ashland, 16.3; Clarksdale, 15.1; Greenwood, 15.8; Hazlehurst, 15.5; Holly Springs, 16.2; Jackson, 15.6; and so on. In fact, a majority of Mississippi school districts have an averageACT score of less than 18.1, regardless of their demographic makeup.
    I pointed out some years ago that a good school should cause the student achievement gap to increase every year. That's because such gaps are caused by some students being able to learn more quickly than others, whether due to natural talent or support at home. The only way to reduce such gaps is for a school to simply refuse educational services to its brightest students, which is child abuse. In the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare, the tortoise won the race because the hare took a nap. The only way to narrow achievement gaps is to make the fastest learners take intellectual "naps" by refusing them educational services.
    Oxford High School has an incredibly large clump of very high scorers on the ACT every year, and this elite group, made up almost entirely of white and  Asian students, causes a huge achievement gap in test scores. But the success of these mostly wealthy, near-genius students doesn't make Oxford's black students any less successful. Yes, there is room for improvement, but in comparison to other districts Oxford's black students are doing well, and the community needs to know that.
    The sad fact is that the Oxford School Board was taken in by a bunch of charlatans who convinced them there was a problem when none existed. An achievement gap isn't a problem. If black ACT scores drop back down to the state average, that's a problem.

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