Cooper: An economically advantaged advantage?

The Tennessee Department of Education’s 2018 State Report Card is awash with information for administrators, teachers, parents and students to digest.

As is done with public opinion polls, the information can be read in ways that reveal positives and negatives about nearly every district and school.

In Hamilton County, much rhetoric has been spilled by some in the community over the past year about equity and supposed disparities between economically disadvantaged and economically advantaged schools.

Using information from the Report Card, we wanted to see how students characterized as “black or African-American” performed — regardless of high school — compared to students characterized as “white”. The report card allows comparisons for the largest number of high schools in the specific indicators of academic achievement (“whether students are performing on grade level or above, based on state tests”) and student academic growth (“whether students are making progress from year to year, regardless of whether they are on grade level yet”).

The expectation, based on the rhetoric, would be that only in economically advantaged high schools — where there are enough students in each racial category to measure — could blacks be on the same academic achievement plane as whites. Likewise, based on the rhetoric, one might expect to see academic growth by blacks only in the top economically advantaged high schools.

The expectation of a school district on a turnaround path, though, might be that wherever academic progress is seen is a positive indication.

However, the Report Card indicates where the academic achievement of black high school students is concerned, attending an economically advantaged school didn’t make a difference. But it did where growth is concerned.

Where information is complete, in only one school where the number of white students is larger than the number of black or African-American students — East Ridge — did blacks receive an academic achievement rating higher than or equal to that of whites. But that rating was a 1 (on a scale of 0 to 4, with 4 being the best).

Indeed, only in the high-performing magnet Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts (CCA) did the rating for blacks rise above a 1. In that school, it was a 3, compared to a 4 for whites.

In high-performing CSAS, the academic achievement rating for blacks was a 1, the same as it was at East Hamilton, East Ridge and Hixson. It was a 0 at Central, Ooltewah and Red Bank. Other than East Ridge, where white students had the same rating as blacks, whites had a one- to three-point higher rating.

On the other hand, growth scores for black students — based on composite TVAAS tests — were greater than or equal to those of white students at CCA, East Hamilton, East Ridge, Hamilton County High, Hixson, Lookout Valley, Ooltewah and STEM School Chattanooga.

Their growth scores exceeded those of white students at East Ridge, Hamilton County High, Hixson, Lookout Valley and STEM School Chattanooga.

In other words, though it’s not yet reflected in academic achievement, progress for blacks is being made at a number of economically advantaged schools. The district’s Future Ready Institutes, launched this fall in high schools in order to help prepare the next generation of workers, is likely to only add to those growth numbers, especially when the district works out a transportation plan for all interested students.

Not surprisingly, the Report Card also shows that where schools scored better on students chronically out of school (in other words, the schools where students were not chronically absent), the academic achievement and academic growth were better, too.

That was true for both black and white students.

The 2018 Report Card is not the be-all, end-all of information administrators, teachers, parents and students need to know about Hamilton County Schools and about an individual school, but it does refute the claims that simply attending an economically advantaged high school makes an academic difference for every student and that growth is unlikely to occur for economically disadvantaged students unless they attend the top performing schools.

That doesn’t mean the district shouldn’t look at other opportunities — such as more true magnet schools and piloted open zone schools — but it does prove that taking immediate action to alter the racial balance at district schools — by whatever means necessary — is not likely to be the panacea some think it might be.

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