PA responds to ‘achievement gap’

Jan. 25, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

Palo Alto parents called for a reduction last week of the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). Frustrated guardians voiced their complaints to the PAUSD Board of Education at a meeting on Tues., Jan. 17.


One of those parents was Michele Dauber, who is also a Stanford law professor and head of the organization We Can Do Better Palo Alto.

PA responds to ‘achievement gap’
2011 California Star Test data showed only 7 percent of black students, 33 percent of Hispanic students and 33 percent of economically disadvantaged Palo Alto Unified School District students passed the CST for Algebra II. The district is debating how to address the achievment gap. (SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)


Dauber cited the teaching and counseling in Palo Alto as a prime factor of the trend, claiming counselors and teachers fail to encourage minority students to take courses beyond current requirements.


“I think they’re basically steered off the college track,” said Dauber in an interview with The Daily.


The ‘achievement gap’


The achievement gap refers to a gap in scores, the number of students matriculating to college and overall academic performance between ethnic and income groups. There has been a long history of such a gap between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students in Palo Alto and a similar gap between affluent and economically disadvantaged students.


Those gaps are embarrassing for the district, which ranks 147th and 114th in California by the percentage of African-American and economically disadvantaged students proficient in Algebra II, according to Stanford education professor Jo Boaler.


By contrast, white students are 10th and Asian students are third.


The rate of minority Palo Alto students eligible to attend a University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) school is significantly lower than that of non-minority students. Most minority students in Palo Alto fail to complete an A-G curriculum, the curriculum required by the UC and CSU systems to be eligible to attend.


Last year, almost 80 percent of students in the district graduated having met the A-G requirements. But there are vast racial divides. Only 40 percent of Latinos graduated meeting those same requirements. For African-Americans, that number was 15 percent.


“That’s pretty shocking,” Boaler said.


Low test scores


According to 2011 California Star Test (CST) scores, only 7 percent of black students passed the CST for Algebra II with a proficient or above. The rate among Hispanic students was 33 percent, while white students passed with 65 percent and Asian students passed with 86 percent.


Only 33 percent of students classified as economically disadvantaged passed the CST for Algebra II. Compared to the 275 Asian students and 461 white students, only 15 black students and 30 Hispanic students sat for the test.


Current PAUSD initiatives to bridge the gap include counseling, intervention classes and expanding preschools for at risk students.


“Solving these issues is like curing cancer; it’s going to take a lot of different issues and there are no magic bullets here,” said Kevin Skelly, superintendent of PAUSD.


Dauber called for more professional development for Palo Alto teachers.


“They have very low expectations for these kids and that’s reflected in the performance that the kids give, so we need to change the expectations,” Dauber said.


Graduation requirements

Parents raised the issue of this ‘bifurcation’ of schools in Palo Alto in December, when they responded to an ongoing debate over graduation requirements in the district.


The current high school graduation requirements in Palo Alto remain below the college preparatory standards set by California public universities.


Last April, Skelly proposed to raise math graduation requirements at local Palo Alto and Gunn high schools and ran into some stubborn opposition —  from many of the math teachers themselves.


The proposal, which would require the completion of Algebra II, is one component of the Palo Alto Unified School District’s (PAUSD) plan to bring graduation requirements in line with what are known as the A-G requirements, or the prerequisites demanded for entry by both the University of California and California State University systems. Special education students would likely be able to obtain waivers for the requirements.


But last spring, when the district’s board of education first considered the proposal, the math department at Palo Alto High School came out strongly against it in a letter, calling the idea “well-intended,” but bearing “unintended devastating consequences.”


Consequently, the board postponed its decision.


In the letter, signed by all but one of the teachers, the department expressed a fear the proposal would stop many students from graduating, or else “drastically lower standards” in the school’s math curriculum. Instead, they suggested requiring three years of math — one more than currently needed — but not Algebra II.


“They make the assumption that just by setting the bar up there, the bar will be reached,” said Radu Toma, the school’s math department head, to the San Jose Mercury News this month. “I’m not saying it’s impossible; it’s a big gamble.”


Boaler questioned the Palo Alto math department’s reasoning about lowered standards.


“There’s a misconception and a fear that in mixed-achieving groups, higher-achieving kids are held back,” Boaler said. “Research shows that this isn’t true.”


“Poor, black and brown kids can achieve and they can achieve at very high levels if they are given proper instruction and proper support,” Dauber said.


“I think that those concerns are based on distrust of the Palo Alto school system because of the way it has historically treated kids who are not super high achieving,” Dauber said.


“Students are capable of doing more than we expect them,” Skelly said.


All attempts to interview math teachers at Palo Alto High School were unsuccessful.


Moving on


“[The district] has a responsibility to all the kids who come through their doors,” Boaler said. “[The proposal] is a way to make sure some kids don’t fall through the net.”


Falling through the net leaves a student with few, if any, four-year college options.


“Over time, it’s become clear that a college education is very, very important,” Skelly said.


According to Skelly, without a push from the district some students “are going to take the path of least resistance” in high school.


Both Skelly and Dauber encourage a college preparatory curriculum catered to all students.


“We need to build a flexible kind of system,” Skelly said.


Dauber also stated that the Individual Education Plan (IEP) assigned to special needs students would exempt those students with cognitive disabilities from doing Algebra II, but also encourage those students with other kinds of special needs to take Algebra II.      Skelly is currently at work on another version of the proposal to present to the school board this May. If it passes, the proposal could potentially affect underclassmen the following school year.


Skelly said he has been “in conversation” with the math department on the plan’s details, and is confident in working out a solution.


The district will return to the issue of bifurcation at next Tuesday’s board meeting.



Contact Judith Pelpola at j[email protected] and Neel Thakkar at [email protected].

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Applications Due Soon