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AISD takes one look at equity gaps

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

Austin Independent School District staff presented trustees with a single-year data snapshot last Monday that showed obvious equity gaps within the district’s student population.

However, the snapshot is only one piece of the district’s complete equity report, which is tentatively due in October. It’s been more than a year since the Texas Civil Rights Project sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education to call attention to disparities in the ways the AISD educates its students. And although trustees created a separate committee to spearhead the assessment — known as the AISD Board Oversight Committee on Excellence Through Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — figuring out what data points to use to measure equity in education has been arduous, to say the least.

At last Monday’s workshop meeting, AISD staff presented Equity Report Cards, which were created to measure how fairly AISD educates all of its students. Lisa Schmitt, the evaluation supervisor for the AISD Department of Research and Evaluation, created the report cards.

Schmitt told board members that staff chose certain metrics with which to compare elementary, middle and high school campuses along with corresponding student groups in order to determine two indexes, student performance and instructional services. Her staff incorporated different algorithms within the report cards to show the relationship between student performance, per-pupil expenditures and different student populations within AISD campuses.

“We identified a core set of indicators that were available across the schools at each level in the district and that represented both behavioral and academic outcomes,” Schmitt explained, adding that the metrics were chosen because they also represented as many students at each school as possible.

At the elementary school level, the student performance index was determined by looking at student groups’ standardized test scores across all subject levels, the percentage of students who were not disciplined, students’ average daily attendance rate and the percentage of students who scored at or above the district’s standard for reading comprehension, or its Spanish-language equivalent.

The metrics for middle schools were similar, except the elementary schools’ reading comprehension metric was replaced with one that measured the percentage of students who did not drop out of school.

The high school student performance index mirrored the middle schools’ but added two other metrics: graduation rate and students’ postsecondary enrollment rate.

Schmitt then explained that staff juxtaposed the student performance index with another metric — the instructional services index — to “characterize school context.” In other words, the instructional services index was created to better identify student populations that are historically behind or harder to educate.

AISD’s instructional services index includes the percentage of students considered economically disadvantaged, the percentage of students served with bilingual or English as a Second Language programs and the percentage of students served with special education programs.

In addition, AISD staff included the average per-pupil expenditure for each school as a third index.

Schmitt said that the three indexes, when graphed, show an obvious trend: AISD spends more money on campuses that require more instructional services, which generally also perform lower than their peers. So, for example, AISD’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy is the highest-achieving school academically and also the cheapest. To educate one student annually, it costs AISD an estimated $5,300 to $6,000.

Meanwhile, to educate a student at Eastside Memorial High School, a historically low-achieving school with a student performance rate that also ranked low compared to other AISD high schools, costs AISD $12,000 to $16,000 per year.

“That’s not surprising given the challenged populations that those schools serve,” Schmitt noted. “But there were some schools with a high instructional services score that outperformed their low instructional services school peers. And those are the schools to look toward for best practices to discover what they’re doing to go counter to the trend.”

For more reliable trend analysis, however, Schmitt said staff would need more than just one year of data. She also noted that the per-pupil expenditure amount included in the analysis might not entirely represent aggregate funds supporting each campus. She said economies of scale or outside funding could skew the numbers presented.

At-large Trustee Gina Hinojosa pointed out that, for the most part, the data shows that high schools with larger Caucasian populations see better academic results, while schools with higher minority populations lag behind.

“We have de facto segregated schools. I just want to know what we’re doing to address that,” she asked.

Superintendent Paul Cruz said targeted initiatives had worked to improve student performance in the past and reduce the effect Hinojosa referenced, but Hinojosa suggested possibly reorganizing school boundaries to more evenly mix student populations.

District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias noted that the difference in AISD’s per-pupil expenditures between some of its high-cost and low-cost schools came out to $38 a day. “At the risk of being unpopular, I’ll say $38 is not enough,” he said, advocating for AISD to spend more on its schools with higher instructional services needs.

Glancing at separate historical data, District 1 Trustee Edmond Gordon pointed out the performance gaps between the district’s African-American students and their Caucasian counterparts.

“The gaps, well, look at them yourselves, they’re enormous,” he said, indicating that AISD had failed its African-American students.

Cruz said the entire equity report, when completed, will identify equity problems, review barriers associated with those problems and provide solutions to close equity gaps. He explained that AISD is still working on adequately defining equity issues within the district.

To further identify problems, before July AISD staff will send out several surveys to senior district leaders and members of its District Advisory Council, a group of volunteers tasked with advising trustees on district programming and performance.

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