University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

African American students experience low academic growth

In The View from the OEP on February 2, 2022 at 12:01 pm

Here at OEP, we love Arkansas’ growth scores as we think they are the best measure of how well schools are educating their students. Recently, we have been digging into publicly available school-level growth scores for student racial and programmatic populations. You can read the full policy brief for the details, but we’ll summarize our most important result here. We were surprised to find that African American students, on average, persistently experience lower rates of academic growth in ELA and math than other student populations.

The finding that African American students are, on average, consistently experiencing low growth relative to other students in the state with similar prior test scores is surprising. We would not expect this finding, as, unlike proficiency or achievement rates, growth scores are not strongly correlated with school characteristics such as the percentage of economically disadvantaged students enrolled. We found that growth scores are also not related to class size, or school expenditures.

We limit our racial analysis to Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic students, as these are the groups with the largest enrollment in Arkansas public schools. About 60% of the student population is Caucasian, 20% of students are African-American, and 18% of students are Hispanic. In Figures 1 and 2, we present the average school-level growth scores in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics by racial group for the 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21 school years. Growth scores are not available for the 2019-20 school year due to COVID-related school closures.

Figure 1. Average school-level ELA growth score by race, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21.
Figure 2. Average school-level ELA growth score by race, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21.

Hispanic students received the highest average school-level growth scores in ELA and math in each of the three years examined, indicating that Hispanic students in Arkansas schools are consistently making above-average growth in measures knowledge and skills from one year to the next. Caucasian students have a score just slightly above the annual average of 80, indicated by the red line. African-American students consistently receive the lowest growth scores in ELA and math compared to Caucasian and Hispanic students. In 2021, African-American students’ growth scores in ELA (77.8) and math (76.8) are statistically significantly lower than Caucasian and Hispanic students’ growth scores.

Further examination by grade level revealed that in all grades in the years examined, African American growth is lower than the annual state average of 80, indicated by the red line. Average school-level ELA and math growth scores for African American students is shown by grade in Figures 3 and 4, respectively. You will notice that in both content areas, growth scores are particularly low in the elementary grades. In addition, in 2021 African American elementary students demonstrated large declines compared to prior grade-level growth. In ELA, 3rd grade growth declined 2 points, while 5th and 6th grade growth declined about 1.5 points. In math, 3rd grade growth was down nearly 5 points and around 2 points in 4th and 5th grades.

Figure 3. Average school-level ELA growth score for African American students, by grade, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21.

Figure 4. Average school-level math growth score for African American students, by grade, 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2020-21.

The meager growth rates for African American students are particularly disconcerting, as African American students in Arkansas are less likely than other student groups to meet grade level standards on state assessments. In 2021, only 16.6% of African American students met or exceeded grade level standards in English Language Arts, and only 13.9% met or exceeded grade level standards in mathematics. African American students need to be growing at the fastest rate if they are going to reach grade level targets and have the skills needed to meet their post-secondary goals.

The trend we have identified don’t illuminate why African American students demonstrate lower growth in ELA and math, or why African American students in early elementary grades demonstrated such large declines in average growth in math through COVID, but the data do indicate that the growth of our African American students is an area of significant concern.

There are schools across the state, however, where African American students are demonstrating high levels of academic growth. We identified twelve schools that were consistently in the top 10% of the state for African American students’ growth. These schools ranged from 3% to 59% African American enrollment and from 24% to 70% economically disadvantaged enrollment.

School leaders and concerned stakeholders should examine the school-level growth rates of African American students and consider changes that could increase African American students’ growth and achievement in ELA and math.

You can check out our new data viz that shows school-level growth and achievement scores for student racial and programmatic groups like FRL and English Leaner students in 2017. We hope that you find it interesting and informative, and welcome your feedback about this important topic!

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