Race, income still drive PPS student success
More Portland students are graduating on time than in previous years, but fewer are meeting state grade level expectations in English and math.
Data released by the Oregon Department of Education suggest historical inequities and socioeconomics remain some of the biggest drivers of student outcomes, as low-income students routinely fall behind in state expectations.
During the 2017-18 school year, 80% of seniors in Portland Public Schools graduated on time.
That's an uptick of two percentage points from the previous year and marks progress on an issue of critical importance for PPS.
Despite that success, the district saw notable slides in student performance at the elementary and middle school levels, particularly among Portland's economically disadvantaged and historically underserved students.
For instance, about 56% of PPS third graders tested at grade level for English, more than the state average. But only 19% of African American third graders met state standards, compared with 68% of white third grade students, 56% multiracial and 53% of Asian students who did, according to at-a-glance district profiles released this month by ODE.
Native students also seem to be falling through the cracks. District profiles show that 26% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander third graders, and 30% of American Indian/Alaska Native students met English performance metrics.
Similarly, only 29% of the district's third graders who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch met state standards. Oregon's average in English is 47% of students from all demographics.
The achievement gaps are no secret, and they're not unique to PPS.
Neighboring districts in Washington County also reflect similar disparities between students of different demographic groups.
Luis Valentino is the chief academic officer for PPS. Valentino said the annual reports may not reflect the whole scenario, but they're still an important measurement of the district's success.
"There's no one indicator that's going to give us the whole picture," Valentino said, but noted, "we don't ignore it because it's going to tell us how we're doing as a system."
Gaps in student outcomes are even more stark in areas of mathematics.
Middle school students across the district showed less competency in math last year than the year prior, with 48% of students meeting state standards. That's still higher than Oregon's average of 39%, but not much to celebrate, PPS officials said.
Among African American students, that number plummeted to 8%, compared with 60% of Asian students, 58% of white students, 49% who are multiracial, 26% Hispanic and Latino, as well as English-learner students.
Data show 23% of low-income kids met math standards.
"Our middle school African American students, there's a lot that concerns me," Valentino said. "There are reasons why I believe we see some of those trends and patterns, and that's where my effort and the efforts of my instructional team are going to go."
Aside from socioeconomics and race, the numbers suggest other factors are at play. Schools with lower performance metrics also show significantly lower attendance numbers.
Being absent from school can be especially detrimental to young learners, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
"Poor attendance cracks a child's academic foundation," the nonprofit organization noted, summarizing the results of a 2008 report titled, "Present, Engaged, and Accounted For."
For example, at Rosa Parks Elementary School, a school on the city's north side with 286 students and a relatively small median class size of 24 kids, only 10% of students were proficient in math last year, versus 17% the year prior.
State profile data indicate only 73% of students there show up on a regular basis, but that, too, comes back to economics, some say.
Nearly all of Rosa Parks Elementary students qualify for discounted or free lunch, indicating less resources within families to serve those students at home.
Attendance is part of the equation, but it usually indicates other factors at play, Valentino said.
"You can't just talk about attendance without talking about the psycho-social emotional well-being of the students," he said.
Some students' parents can't miss work, so they stay home to care for their siblings, or others may be failing in school and don't want to show up, only to continue to fail. Others abuse drugs at an early age and require extra intervention.
Valentino said it's all part of a bigger question:
"How do we ensure that we're addressing the needs of the whole child?"
Several initiatives and programs are in place that address everything from added support for at-risk students, to changing the curriculum being taught.
"It's about bringing that balance between academic and social emotional wellness," Valentino said.
Data for school districts and individual schools can be found here..
Note: This story has been updated to correctly indicate the increase in on-time graduation rates and note the school year for which data was pulled.
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