Second of two parts.

Shows performance differences between black and white students on 2017 K-PREP, using shares of students who score proficient and distinguished. | Illustration by Boris Ladwig

Black JCPS students in the last few years have fallen further behind their white peers on state academic tests — but only at some grade levels — while for students across the state the racial achievement gap has widened at all grade levels — and by a wider margin than within Jefferson County Public Schools.

Racial disparities in achievements on academic tests in JCPS were one of the reasons that prompted Kentucky interim Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis to recommend that the state take over the district’s management.

In a letter Lewis sent April 30 to JCPS officials, he called JCPS tests scores “unconscionable” and pointed to “the incredible continuing racial/ethnic and socioeconomic achievement gaps.”

Except the gap is widening at an even greater pace — and across more grade levels — outside of JCPS.

An Insider analysis of four years of state standardized test (K-PREP) data shows that the racial achievement gap at JCPS is closing at the high school level. And while the gap is widening at the elementary and middle school levels, it is widening more across the state as a whole and at each of four other large districts whose scores Insider analyzed.

Kentucky Board of Education Vice Chair Rich Gimmel has told Insider that his “main concern” regarding JCPS test scores is the growing achievement gaps between white and black students at the elementary and high school levels.

Gimmel will be one of the 11 KBE members who, barring legal complications, will decide whether to uphold Lewis’ recommendation. The Jefferson County Board of Education this week announced that it would challenge the recommendation.

Mind the gap

Insider calculated the gaps in the shares of students scoring proficient and distinguished in English and math at elementary, middle and high school levels at JCPS for the last four years and compared them to the same gaps at the state level and other districts.

For example, 59.7 percent of white JCPS elementary school students scored proficient or distinguished in reading in 2017, compared to 28.9 percent of black students. That’s a gap of 30.8 percentage points. For the state as a whole, that gap was 27.3 points. In Warren County, it was 28.1 points. In Fayette County it was 36.8 points.

The average gap in six measures — elementary reading and math, middle school reading and math, high school reading and math — at the state level was 25.9 percentage points, or 3.7 points smaller than the gap at JCPS.

However, the average gap in JCPS rose 2.2 points in the last four years — while it grew 2.7 points at the state. And it grew 3.3 points at FCPS.

Gaps can be tricky, said Susan Weston, who recently analyzed JCPS K-PREP scores for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

If scores for both black and white students improve, yet the white students improve more, the gap increases. If, however, scores for both groups get worse at an equal rate, the gap stays the same. And yet, the scenario in which the gap increases would be preferable.

For example, while the average gap in Fayette County is much larger than in Jefferson County, Fayette County’s black students scored better, on average, than those in JCPS. In middle school math, 23 percent of black FCPS students in 2017 scored proficient/distinguished, compared to 22.3 percent of black JCPS students. If white students in both districts performed on an even level, the gap would be a mere 0.7 percentage points — but the gap actually is 11 points, because in FCPS, 62.7 percent of white students score proficient or distinguished, compared to just 51 percent of white JCPS students.

Direction

Shows by how much (in percentage points) achievement gaps between black and white students increased, using shares of elementary school students who scored proficient and distinguished on 2014 and 2017 K-PREP tests.

The racial achievement gap at JCPS in the last few years also increased although the test performance of black students has been relatively flat. State officials advised that to get a good idea of performance trajectory, scores should be viewed over several years — and not just compared between two years.

Those trajectories show that scores for black students in the last four years have dipped in elementary reading — but stayed about the same in middle school reading and high school English. Scores have gotten better in middle school math. The trajectory in elementary school math was unclear, as scores improved from 2014 to 2015 and again from 2015 to 2016, before falling 4.3 percentage points from 2016 to 2017. Elementary school math scores for white students that year fell 3 points.

The trajectory of academic performance of black JCPS students in the last four years is clearly downward only in high school math — though the data for 2016 and 2017 varied widely compared to each other and to the prior two years. Scores for both black and white students improved more than 2.5 percentage points from 2014 to 2015, then both jumped an astonishing 8 percentage points from 2015 to 2016 before both plummeting by at least 10 percentage points from 2016 to 2017. Scores for black students at the state level fell by 9.3 percentage points. The Kentucky Department of Education did not respond to a request from Insider to explain those swings.

Meanwhile, in Fayette County, scores for black students between 2014 and 2017 dipped across the board, while scores of white students were mixed, meaning the achievement gap, for the most part, widened, and by a larger margin than at JCPS.

For example, in 2014, 69.2 percent of white FCPS elementary school students scored proficient or distinguished in reading, while only 35.8 percent of black students did. That was a racial gap of 33.4 percentage points. In 2017, 69 percent of white students achieved proficient/distinguished, but only 32.2 percent of black students did, for a gap of 36.8 percentage points. The gap in those four years worsened by 3.4 percentage points. During the same period, the gap at JCPS widened by 2.4 points.

Comparisons with other districts

Comparisons of JCPS data with other districts are difficult, because most of them have so few black students taking the tests that the state is prohibited from providing the data to protect the students’ identities.

For example, Kenton County, a district with 15,000 students, had only 22 black students taking the high school math and English tests, compared to about 3,400 black high school students at JCPS.

Kenton scores were available at the elementary level, and showed that the racial achievement gap from 2014 to 2017 widened by 7.2 percentage points. It widened by 5.7 points in Boone County, 3.9 points in Warren County, 2.8 percent in Fayette County and by 2.6 percent — the smallest increase among the five districts — in Jefferson County.

In Part 1, an Insider analysis of Jefferson County Public Schools’ 2017 K-PREP scores showed that the district’s overall scores do, indeed, generally lag behind state averages. However, most student groups, including African-Americans, do not trail state averages by much.

Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.


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