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Dilemma for Baltimore educators: How to judge a school with high ratings, yet huge black-white achievement gap

The head of Baltimore’s school system zeroed in on the charter school with an achievement gap unlike any she had ever seen.

While 75 percent of white students at The Green School of Baltimore scored as proficient in math on last year’s standardized tests, only 2.6 percent of black students did.

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School system CEO Sonja Santelises called the disparity “startling.” Board member Martha James-Hassan voted to shut the school down. Board chairwoman Cheryl Casciani said labeling the gap extraordinary was an understatement.

They told the crowd at a packed school board meeting they would demand change.

“We have to get out of the habit of just saying, ‘Is this a good school?’ ” Santelises said. “The real question is, is this a good school and for which children?”

Despite their concerns, board members voted to approve a three-year renewal for the public charter school in Northeast Baltimore. Santelises said she was encouraged by the school’s willingness to put together a plan to address the achievement gap. The school also looked good on other measures — the state recently awarded it 4 out of 5 stars, one of only about 20 city schools to score that high or better on Maryland’s new school rating system.

At that same January school board meeting, members voted to close three other charters and two traditional schools. They cited issues with poor academic performance, special education compliance and low enrollment.

Santelises said the dilemma posed by the Green School data suggests the district needs to revisit its policies and ask: To what extent should an achievement gap weigh into the board’s decision to renew a school’s charter?

“Not all is well just because all looks well,” she said.

Maryland has long struggled to close the gap between how black and white students perform on standardized tests. Black students in Baltimore, on average, are academically 1.9 grades behind white students, according to a ProPublica analysis of the latest available federal data.

But still, the Green School’s data jumped out to district officials.

Green School leaders don’t dispute that the achievement gap must narrow, and say they’ve taken steps they believe will help do that. They also say that one data point doesn’t tell the whole story of their school, a tight-knit community in Belair-Edison that aims to instill a love of nature in students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

“There’s nuance to looking at the data,” said Green School special education teacher Jess Heley. “That was not reflected in the statements that were made.”

Third-grade teacher Paul Harleston added: “We’re not running from this problem. We want to address it as effectively as we can.”

The Green School, located on a small, leafy campus off Kentucky Avenue, is among the city’s most integrated schools. Of its 162 students, 46 percent are black, 35 percent are white, the rest Hispanic or another group.

Across the district, which serves nearly 80,000 children, almost 80 percent of students are African-American and 8 percent are white. Roughly three-quarters of city schools have a student population that’s more than 90 percent racial minority, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of 2014 data.

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The achievement gap across Baltimore is also stark. The gap between black and white elementary students on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC, is around 30 percentage points — something the district is working to change.

“One major driver is just the lower expectations for particular groups of kids based on race and based on the ZIP code they come from,” Santelises said. “We have to unlearn these low expectations for certain groups of kids — and that’s true in every neighborhood.”

At the Green School, 39 black students and 24 white students took the tests last year. The small numbers mean each student there has an outsized impact on the school’s overall data. Among those 63 students, 27 percent had special needs.

Rob Helfenbein, associate dean of Loyola University’s education school, questioned how many of those students with special needs were African-American. What is the racial breakdown, he wonders, of the roughly 16 percent of Green School students coming from low-income families?

Both are typically predictors of lower test scores. “Who are these kids?” Helfenbein asked. “These stark numbers raise more questions than answers.”

Proficiency is defined as scoring a 4 or 5 on the PARCC test, an exam state officials are working to phase out because of concerns it is too time-consuming and disruptive. It is also difficult. Less than half of Maryland students pass it.

Instead of just looking at the percentage of students who are proficient, Green School principal Kate Primm said she focuses on the average PARCC scores of students, and judges the achievement gap from that perspective. This better reflects how many students are right on the cusp of scoring as proficient, she said, versus how many are still a ways away.

The average math score for black students at Green School was 703 points, compared with 743 for white students. The test is scored on a scale of 650 to 850.

“There is a gap,” Primm said. “It’s not a 75-point gap, but it’s a gap that we are aware of, and that we are concerned about.”

Above-average PARCC scores were a key factor in the Green School earning a coveted 4 out of 5 stars in the state’s new accountability system. But because it only looks at the school-wide averages, some say, this system can gloss over issues of inequity.

Allison Rose Socol, assistant director of P-12 Policy at The Education Trust, said these star ratings “can really hide disparities in opportunities and outcomes.”

The system “doesn’t provide good incentive for schools to prioritize closing these gaps,” she said. “It’s really important for schools to be held accountable for how they're serving all groups of students — not just some.”

Some at Green School push back on the use of standardized test scores to judge their work.

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The scores don’t fully illustrate why the school is special, teachers, parents and administrators say. Green School first-graders are working together to raise a baby Diamondback Terrapin. Hardly any children get suspended. Some students make leaps of progress year over year.

“I know the numbers are the numbers, but to me, it means nothing because I’ve seen what they’re capable of doing,” said Toya Brown, an African-American parent. Her son is in third grade at the school and her daughter, who graduated last year, is now in honors classes at the Baltimore Design School. “I am a witness and my child is a product of the specialized attention they have for each child.”

Board members required the school to develop a plan for narrowing the achievement gap as a condition of its charter renewal.

“We’re in a place of complacence,” James-Hassan said. “I hope that any organization that is predominantly working with kids of color or young people in general develops a very low tolerance and a sense of urgency around these kinds of disparities.”

The Green School is working with a math consultant to analyze its curriculum, school staff said. And teachers are continuing to undergo implicit bias training, which aims to create awareness of learned stereotypes.

“As a staff that’s predominantly Caucasian,” Heley said, “we need to investigate that in the same way we investigate our curriculum or we’re not doing enough.”

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