Lexington high schools have been unable to close large, sometimes enormous, achievement gaps between minority students and their peers despite years of effort, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of the latest test results.
Furthermore, low-income students failed to achieve at the highest levels in six key subjects in many of those same classrooms during the 2015-16 school year.
Superintendent Manny Caulk and the school district’s top administrators acknowledge they have been unsuccessful in eliminating gaps in achievement levels among low-income, black, Hispanic and white students.
“As a community, we know we have longstanding disparities in the achievement of students of color and students living in poverty and their peers; we have to own that,” Caulk said.
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In fact, gaps at four of five high schools in core subjects are bigger than those at the state level. At three of five high schools, low-income students performed worse than the state did as a whole with poor high school students in most subjects.
A closer look at test results in reading, math, science, social studies, writing and language mechanics reveal the challenges ahead:
▪ Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School had two unwanted distinctions among the high schools — the biggest gap between black and white students scoring at the lowest, or novice, levels and the largest gap between white and black students scoring at the highest levels. For example 34.2 percent of black students scored proficient and distinguished in reading compared to 80.3 percent of white students. In math, just 21.6 percent of black students scored at the highest levels compared to 65.2 percent of whites.
▪ Dunbar also has the biggest gaps between white students and Hispanic students. White students outperformed Hispanic students by 36 percentage points or better in all subjects.
▪ At Tates Creek, Henry Clay and Lafayette high schools, there are gaps in achievement levels of white and black students of at least 30 percentage points or more in at least four of six subjects tested.
▪ Bryan Station and Tates Creek high schools head the list of schools struggling with the performance of low-income students, each with about 54 percent of those students classified as novice in reading.
▪ Sixty percent or more of low-income students failed to reach proficiency or better at Tates Creek, Bryan Station and Dunbar in at least five subjects of six tested.
▪ Only Lafayette and Henry Clay’s low-income students performed better than the state as a whole in most of the six subjects tested. More students at those schools achieved proficiency or better in core subjects.
▪ Bryan Station had the smallest gap between black and white students on achievement tests, with an 11.4 percentage point gap in math, a 25.7 percentage point gap in reading and a 14.4 percentage point gap in science. However, the gaps are less because the school has fewer students scoring at high levels. The school has significantly more low-income, disabled and black students taking and struggling on achievement tests than other high schools in the city.
Gaps exist because some students aren’t motivated to do well on the state tests. Some students are distracted by home responsibilities or lack support outside school, educators say. Some low achievers don’t come to school regularly. Some weren’t exposed to early childhood education. Others didn’t have the advantages, like travel, of their peers. Some students have mental health or behavior issues.
In some cases, programs schools have tried in the past missed the mark.
With the latest test results, principals pledged to give more instruction or extra help to students that need it. From the district level, Caulk has, among several strategies, put more specialized teachers at schools, added new technology to track the achievement and progress of English language learners, provided parents of diverse races and cultures more information about how students are taught and tested, and is launching dropout prevention and mentoring programs.
At Dunbar, a new grading system will more accurately reflect whether students know the material they’ve been taught. Teachers will make more than one attempt to help all students meet academic standards, Principal Betsy Rains said. Students needing extra instruction in reading and math will get it. The school is providing mental health support and behavior coaching.
“Because our achievement gaps have been persistent, we realized we needed to take a more systematic approach to improving student achievement for all of our students,” Rains said.
Bryan Station is identifying and targeting resources for students who are already performing worse than their classmates before they arrive at the high school.
“At Station, we are zeroing in on the students coming to us below grade level in reading and math... who are reading and doing math on a third-grade level,” Principal James McMillin said. “That means they have traveled through a system from kindergarten through eighth grade and still need interventions and support at the basic level.”
Tates Creek Principal Sam Meaux said the school has gap-reduction goals that include employing a staff that reflects the diversity of the students and consistently enforcing the rules with all students.
At Lafayette, Principal Bryne Jacobs said a staff team reviews attendance numbers and reaches out to students not coming to school regularly.
C.B. Akins of Lexington, who recently co-chaired a study group on the statewide achievement gap for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, wants to give Caulk a chance to improve achievement levels.
“It’s going to take all of us to make it work,” Akins said. “It’s going to take bold leadership in the schools. The community is going to have a renewed emphasis and the support that Fayette County is known to give. And then we are going to have to have some sustainability. It can’t be hit or miss.”
Akins said Lexington-Fayette County has perhaps a head start on getting some of the problems solved simply because of the buy-in that schools have from community organizations that are willing to volunteer and donate resources.