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Madison's achievement gap: a stubbornly 'stable trend'

By: Abigail Becker

Racial disparities persist in Madison, and the education field is no exception. Photo by Abigail Becker, Madison Commons.

The state of education in Madison is stuck.

For the past eight to 10 years, data and test scores have consistently shown disparities between black and white students that are closely linked to socioeconomic divides.

The achievement gap—a disparity in test scores between the performance of students in groups broken down by race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status—is moving forward little by little in Madison but not for enough students.

Madison schools are showing there are more students who are proficient in reading and math, according to a second annual school district report released July 27, although a significant racial achievement gap remains.

“Everything we do in our district is aimed at raising student achievement for all and addressing the gaps in opportunity that we believe lead to gaps in student achievement,” Cheatham said at a press conference held in Elvehjem Elementary School’s library. “We want to be a model for what a successful thriving public school district looks like, and together I believe we’re well on our way.”

While the superintendent said the district is on its way, eliminating or even making a dent in the achievement gap and its causes will require more than just ensuring minority students perform better on exams. The causes run deeper than school.

‘Trend is no trend’

Eric Grodsky is an associate professor of sociology at UW-Madison and is considered an expert on inequality in higher education. Courtesy of UW-Madison.

Gaps in educational achievement and attainment by minority students, specifically black students, have declined since the 1960s largely due to the civil rights movement, Eric Grodsky, UW-Madison associate professor of sociology, explained.

But there are still considerable gaps in education in Dane County that break down along racial lines. Grodsky says much of the Race to Equity report, a study released in 2013 on Madison’s racial disparities, could have been written in 1990 since little has changed. He says Madison’s achievement gap’s “trend is no trend.”

“It’s pretty striking how little these things have changed,” Grodsky says. “Test score gaps over the past decade or so are pretty large and annoyingly stable.”

According to test scores from the Department of Public Instruction, the percentage of black students in the third grade who tested proficient in reading ranged from 7.8 to 10.3 percent from 2010-2011 to 2014-2015. White students who tested proficient in reading during the same year and grade ranged from 35.9 to 37.5 percent.

Bradley Carl, a researcher with UW-Madison’s Value-Added Research Center says now there are more data points, tests and measurements, including state specific tests, graduation rates and college readiness gaps, showing educational disparities continue to exist.

“What we now have are basically just more spotlights shining a light on the same stage,” Carl says.

Linked factors show up in schools

While racial gaps, particularly the black and white student divide, receive a large amount of attention, others including economic and ability gaps exist.

The city and school district’s changing demographics can shed light on the state of education in Madison.

Bradley Carl
Bradley Carl is a researcher with UW-Madison’s Value-Added Research Center. Courtesy of UW-Madison.

Race and socioeconomic status are more closely linked together in Madison, Carl says. If you are black, there’s a greater chance you are living in poverty, while the opposite is true for white residents.

“There’s not as much of a non-white middle class,” Carl says.

Grodsky says national gaps in academic achievement narrowed over the course of the 1980s at the same time that income gaps took off. Black families were impacted more by the income gap, Grodsky says, contributing to the lack of a black middle class in Madison.

One-year estimates from the American Community Study as detailed in the Race to Equity report support Carl’s argument, showing that 54 percent of black residents in Dane County were living in poverty in 2011. This is in comparison to 39.2 percent in Wisconsin and 28.1 percent across the United States.

“For Dane County’s African American children, growing up poor is the norm; while for local white kids, being poor is an exceptional and often short-lived,” according to the Race to Equity report.

Black Dane County residents were 6.2 times as likely to be living in poverty as non-Hispanic whites in 2011, which is greater than state and national averages, according to the report. Wisconsin black residents were four times and nationally 2.6 times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be living in poverty.

The report also shows higher rates of child poverty, lower median household income and unemployment rates. These factors collide and emerge in schools.

“There’s this strong link between where you have big gaps in education level and big gaps in income, you will tend to see big gaps in educational achievement regardless of what we’re measuring,” Carl says.

Looking at the whole issue

The Race to Equity project through the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families aims to narrow and eliminate racial disparities in Wisconsin. Read the report here.
The Race to Equity project through the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families aims to narrow and eliminate racial disparities in Wisconsin. Click the image to read the report.

Erica Nelson, Race to Equity project director, says we need to avoid “talking in silos.” That is, you can’t talk about academic disparities without addressing poverty, child welfare and the criminal justice system.

She and the Race to Equity team analyzed multiple indicators and found that the disparities black Dane County residents face are not the same across the state and nation.

In 2006, 33 percent of Dane County’s black population was living in poverty, according to the report. That number jumped to 54 percent in 2011 while statewide, 35 and 39 percent of the county’s black population was living in poverty in 2006 and 2011, respectively. In comparison, nine percent of Dane County’s non-Hispanic white population was living in poverty in 2006 and 2011, which remained consistent across Wisconsin and the United States.

Across the nation’s black population, 25 and 28 percent were living in poverty in 2006 and 2011 compared to nine and 11 percent of the nation’s non-Hispanic white population, according to the report.

The numbers for how many third graders are not proficient at reading and students who don’t graduate with a regular diploma after four years of high school are also higher for black students than for non-Hispanic white students.

“You can’t just fix all the issues in education without thinking about other issues outside of the realm of school districts and how those impacts are affecting educational measures,” Nelson says.

Old story, new town

The achievement gap comes and goes in the collective public conscience. Right now, it is a common phrase and hot-button topic in Madison. In many ways, it is an old story hitting a newer city.

Carl compared Madison and Milwaukee, saying that the academic achievement problems gaining attention in Madison were already present in Milwaukee about 50 years ago.

“When it comes to a place like this that has a history of high student achievement, then it’s a bit more news,” Carl says. “Madison historically was a very high performing district … then all of a sudden starting not so long ago the pictures weren’t as pretty as we thought all along.”

Carl attributes the presence of the university and the state Capitol to much of Madison’s demographics and past education performance. In Madison, the university and state jobs act as a buffer to some of the shocks in the economy that other cities, like Milwaukee, lack.

“Having government and the university as a base of employment, (the economy) tends to be a bit more stable,” Carl says. “You don’t boom and bust quite so much.”

Milwaukee with its industrial jobs that make up the “backbone of the middle class” is much more affected when those jobs are cut out.

“As the jobs that could and did for a long time support a middle class lifestyle without a college education, when those jobs started going away, the burden of that fell disproportionately on the black and the Hispanic families,” Carl says.

Over the course of 24 years, the student population in the Madison school district has shifted from white students making up a clear majority of the district’s students to minority students making up a little over half of the district’s students.

In 1991, the student population throughout the district was 79 percent white, 12 percent black, 5 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Native American, according to data from the district. Current student populations based on 2015 enrollment shows that the district is 44 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, 18 percent black, 9 percent Asian and 9 percent two or more races.

Both external and in-school factors affect students’ performances and the academic achievement gap. Teacher effectiveness, class sizes and curricula are variables that influence the success of  students, but social factors such as poverty and a stable home life compete for students’ time and attention.

While Grodsky says out-of-school factors trump in-school factors, both need to be addressed to solve the achievement gap. Individual factors can’t be cherry-picked and expect to solve the problem but rather a collaborative effort addressing social and educational factors is needed.

“We can’t make a war on educational disparity become a war on poverty,” Grodsky says. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Of in-school factors, Carl believes the quality of classroom teachers is the number one influence affecting students and that “a fundamental transformation” of how teaching quality is thought of is needed.

But also, recognizing that there are no “miracle curricula” is important in addressing educational policy and classroom reform, he says.

Data Slider-Landing
Over the past two decades, student population in the Madison school district has shifted from white students making up a clear majority of the district’s students to minority students making up a little over half of the district’s students. Courtesy of Bo McCready, MMSD Research & Program Evaluation Office.

Moving forward

The Race to Equity report has called Madison’s disparity trends “alarming,” and Carl calls it the “defining issue in K-12 education of the past, present and future.” Grodsky calls them “striking” and a “wake-up call.”  

The achievement gap is on educators’ and legislators’ radar, and programs have come and gone. There has been No Child Left Behind, Common Core and new discipline programs. Community organizations such as the Urban League have tutoring programs meant to supplement students’ classroom education.

Yet the achievement gap still exists and is not changing. At least, it’s not being effective enough.

“Whatever we’re doing has not been effective. They haven’t made a dent,” Grodsky says. “If they’re working, they’re not working enough for enough kids.”

Measuring and identifying causes of educational disparities and possible solutions is no easy task. The success of programs and reforms put in place today will be seen in the test scores of the children of today’s students, Carl says.

“If we’re going to move the needle on the achievement gap 20 years from now, that’s going to be done now, but it won’t show up,” Carl says.

The key is to identify high performing schools, evaluate what they are doing and how and then “scale up and replicate,” Carl. “There is no quick fix to this,” he added.

Grodsky mentioned implementing a community schools model and doing better job of providing coordinated and thoughtful public services as possible solutions to social issues affecting the achievement gap.

The academic achievement is a multi-generational problem. It did not emerge overnight, and it will not be solved overnight.

Grodsky says the time to act is now, and that Madison is in a state of momentum, citing the shooting of Tony Robinson, a 19-year-old black man, by a white police officer in March. Grodsky says he worries conversation surrounding racial disparities will slow down and momentum will be lost.

“I worry if we don’t act in a coordinated way, ten years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘that was our chance,’” Grodsky says.

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