Officials at the Mountain View Whisman School District have long acknowledged the achievement gap, a gulf in student performance divided by race and family income. But recent studies by Stanford University show that the disparity between white and Latino student achievement in Mountain View is unusual -- it's bigger than in almost any other school district in the country.
A team of Stanford University researchers released the Stanford Education Data Archive last month, a massive database aggregating test scores from roughly 200 million exams from 40 million students between third and eighth grade between 2009 and 2012. From the overwhelming magnitude of data, researchers found that just about every school district in the United States is grappling with a racial achievement gap. On average, the gap in performance shows that white students are performing roughly 1.5 to two full grade levels above their Hispanic and black peers, according to the study.
The achievement gap is worse in many cities in the Bay Area. Researchers pointed to Mountain View, Berkeley and San Rafael as locations where the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students is the largest. In these school districts, white students are performing several grade levels above their Latino peers, according to the study.
The database itself acts as an open invitation for policy makers to get detailed information about public schools, and to help researchers try to find the best practices for closing the gap. But the subsequent reports published by the research team, including project director Sean Reardon, take a stab at what might be causing the gulf between groups of students.
Income strongly correlates with student achievement. One study from the research team notes that "half of the variance" in local achievement gaps comes from socioeconomic differences that closely align with race. White students, on average, come from families with a higher income than Latino families, who in turn have a higher income than black families. Families with enough money can afford to spend more time reading to their children, and give them greater access to tutoring services, computers and libraries.
"All of these experiences are affected by family socioeconomic status," the study states. "High-income and highly educated parents have, on average, more resources to foster and support their children's academic skills outside of school "
But it's not the only factor. In many places in the country where white and Latino students, or white and black students, come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, the racial and ethnic achievement gaps continue to persist -- sometimes by wide margins.
That could be due to an array of different factors, but chief among them is segregation. The study found that black and Latino students being funneled into higher poverty schools tends to magnify the achievement gap. The study makes a case that if low-income students were spread equally across all campuses, it would even out the magnitude of the achievement gap within a district.
"In the presence of segregation, however, if school racial composition is correlated with school resources ... then black and Hispanic students will, on average, experience fewer opportunities for learning than their white peers," according to the study.
The study points out that many districts in the Bay Area are home to some of the largest gaps in socioeconomic status between white and Hispanic families and some of the greatest levels of segregation in local schools, including in Mountain View, San Rafael, Cabrillo Unified in Half Moon Bay and Berkeley.
The problem of segregation
Segregation itself is not the key problem, the problem is the socioeconomic imbalances that can come with it, according to Kenneth Shores, a researcher at Stanford who has worked on the education database project for years. He said schools where minority students and white students are heavily stratified don't necessarily see a large achievement gap, provided both schools are working with the same amount of resources each year.
"But in places with the same level of segregation, schools with a high number of minority students that have a lot more poor students tend to be the ones with really big academic achievement gaps," Shores said.
In the Mountain View Whisman School District, Castro and Theuerkauf Elementary have the lowest test scores and the highest concentration of low-income and Latino students. When the school board last year considered splitting Castro Elementary into its own school and removing the Dual Immersion language program to create its own school, some parents cried foul and told the board that the move amounted to segregation. Former Superintendent Craig Goldman, along with the Castro restructuring task force, insisted that isolating the district's lowest-performing students was the best way to narrow the achievement gap.
In an message to board members regarding the Stanford study, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told trustees that now is the time to consider whether the district has a student placement policy that is strong enough to eliminate segregation in Mountain View's public schools.
"In essence, Reardon is reiterating that a separate but equal approach, as argued through (Supreme Court case) Plessy v. Ferguson, is not enough to eliminate the achievement gap," Rudolph said. "Moreover, it will take more than 'tossing money' at a school to equalize the effects of segregation, as represented through race and poverty."
No silver bullet
The responsibility mostly falls on school districts to improve test scores for lower-achieving students. School districts have autonomy over curriculum adoption, teacher assignment policies and resource distribution across schools. State-level initiatives don't appear to be a "dominant force in shaping patterns of racial (and) ethnic academic achievement gaps," according to one of the studies.
So far, no one seems to have found a silver bullet for closing the achievement gap. Reardon noted in one study that one of the take-home messages from the data analysis is that educators do not appear to know how to provide "adequate educational opportunities" for children growing up in low-income communities. The only places in the country where the achievement gap is near zero are in places where all the students are performing badly -- like Detroit and Clayton County, Ga.
"This does not appear, at least in the case of Detroit, to be the kind of equity we would like to reproduce," Reardon said in the study.
"In other words, there is no school district in the U.S. that serves a moderately large number of black or Hispanic students where achievement is high and achievement gaps are near zero."
Shores, who co-authored the study, said it may sound pretty bleak knowing that no one has managed to close the achievement in the United States, but he said it can also serve as a call to action for policy makers to find a solution.
"It's grim, but it's also a kind of kick in the pants as well," Shores said. "To me, it kind of motivates research and action and recognizing that the situation is dire."
This vexing problem came up at a Mountain View-Los Altos High School District board meeting in October, when Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf reviewed test scores that showed Latino, English-learner and economically disadvantaged students were struggling to meet state standards.
There are examples of school districts raising test scores for these under-performing student groups, but Sarraf told the board that all these districts have a mostly homogeneous pool of students -- something along the lines of a student body where 80 percent of the population is Latino and economically disadvantaged. In a district where there's a big number of both high-achieving and low-achieving students, however, Sarraf said no district appears to be making any significant progress in closing the achievement gap.