One district narrows the achievement gap

A pretty African American university woman reading at the parkThe Rockville Centre School District on Long Island is closing the achievement gap by detracking its middle and high schools and offering all students an accelerated curriculum. Its superintendent, William Johnson, announced an ambitious goal in 1993: By the year 2000, 75 percent of all graduates will earn a New York State Regents diploma.

To earn a Regents diploma, students must pass at least eight end-of-course Regents examinations, including two in math, two in laboratory sciences, two in social studies, one in English and one in a foreign language. In 1993, 58 percent of Rockville Centre students were earning a Regents diploma (compared to 38 percent statewide). Twenty percent of Rockville Centre’s students are African American or Hispanic, 13 percent come from low-income families and 10 percent are enrolled in special education.

Regents exams are linked with academic coursework, so the district gradually eliminated all low-track courses beginning in the middle school. The high school eased the transition to higher-level coursework by offering students instructional support classes and carefully monitoring the progress of struggling students.

Math a stumbling block

In the first years, the number of Regents diplomas increased, but a disturbing profile of students who were not earning the diploma emerged. Students who did not earn a Regents diploma were more likely to be African American or Hispanic, to receive reduced-price lunch or to have a learning disability. Studying the test data revealed that the second math Regents exam presented a stumbling block to earning a diploma for many students. While high-track students enrolled in trigonometry and advanced algebra in the 10th grade, low-track students did not even begin first-year algebra until grade 10.

To provide all students with the opportunity to take the needed courses, including calculus, all students were given an accelerated middle school math curriculum that formerly had been reserved for the district’s highest achievers. Teachers revised and condensed the middle school math curriculum. The new curriculum was taught to all students in heterogeneously grouped classes. Struggling students were offered support classes and after-school help four afternoons a week. After attending these accelerated classes, over 90 percent of the students entering high school passed the first Regents math exam.

The achievement gap in math narrowed significantly between 1995 and 1997. In 1995, only 23 percent of regular-education African American or Hispanic students had passed this algebra-based Regents exam before entering high school. After the universal acceleration of all middle school students in heterogeneous classes, 75 percent passed. The percentage of white and Asian American regular-education students who passed rose from 54 percent to 98 percent.

Special education students

The district was cautious in applying universal acceleration to special-education students. Although some were included in accelerated classes, they were graded using alternative assessments. Most special-education students were placed in a double-period, low-track math class in ninth grade. Results revealed that this low-track class failed to raise skills sufficiently, and it was eliminated. Starting in 1999, all special-education students were included in the heterogeneously grouped classes and took the first math exam with everyone else in eighth grade. They also studied science in heterogeneous classes throughout middle school.

High school teachers were pleased with the results of the middle-school detracking and acceleration in math and science. They stated that the middle school science classes were academic, focused and enriched, preparing students well for ninth-grade biology. The combination of new curriculum and heterogeneous grouping produced a dramatic increase in the passing rate on the first science Regents exam. After just one year of heterogeneous grouping, the passing rate for African American and Hispanic students on the first science exam increased from 48 percent to 77 percent and for white and Asian American students from 85 to 94 percent.

In 2000, only 19.3 percent of all New York State African American and Hispanic 12th-graders and 58.7 percent of white and Asian American students graduated with Regents diplomas. By 2003, the percentages in both groups increased statewide; 26.4 percent of African American or Hispanic and 66.3 percent of white or Asian American students earned Regents diplomas. The number of students receiving the diploma increased in all groups, but the gap between groups remained.

Rockville Centre, however, has seen both an increase in the number of students earning Regents diplomas and a decrease in the gap between groups. In Rockville Centre’s high school, 32 percent of all African American and Hispanic students and 88 percent of all white or Asian American students earned Regents’ diplomas when they graduated in 2000. By the time the 2003 class graduated after attending accelerated, heterogeneous classes in math and science beginning in middle school, the gap was significantly smaller ? 82 percent of all African American or Hispanic and 97 percent of all white or Asian American students graduated with Regents diplomas.

Support for detracked students

In 2003 some 10th-grade classes were detracked. Students began studying the pre -International Baccalaureate 10th-grade curriculum in English and social studies. To help all students meet the demands of an advanced curriculum, the district provided every-other-day support classes in math, science and English. These classes were linked to the curriculum and allowed teachers to pre- and post-teach topics.

Detracking in the 10th grade, combined with teaching all students the pre – International Baccalaureate curriculum, appears to be further closing the gap between groups. This year 50 percent of all minority students will study the IB curriculum in English and history in the 11th grade. In the fall of 2003 only 31 percent chose to do so. District educators conclude that when all students are taught the same high-track curriculum, achievement rises for all groups of students, not just poor or minority students. By closing the curriculum gap, they are closing the achievement gap.

“Closing the Achievement Gap by Detracking”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 86, Number 1, April 2005, pp. 594-603.

Published in ERN May/June 2005 Volume 18 Number 5

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