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U of L Researcher: Gaps In Student Achievement And Discipline Go Hand In Hand

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A new study conducted by a University of Louisville researcher has found a link between racial disparities on student test scores and racial disparities in school discipline between black and white students. The findings could mean that any successful effort to reduce one gap will likely help narrow the other.

The fact that black and Hispanic students are suspended and disciplined at higher rates than white students is well-established by past research. And many schools show significant “achievement gaps” in which white students tend to score better on standardized tests than their black and Latino peers. Those patterns hold true in Jefferson County Public Schools too.

This study examined the relationship between those racial gaps. It was conducted by researchers at Stanford University, The University of Florida and U of L.

The researchers looked at a two large national data sets — Stanford Education Data Archive and the Civil Rights Data Collection. They found that when achievement gaps were wider between white and black students, so were their racial differences in suspensions and expulsions — and vice versa. They also found that when one gap decreased over a two-year period, so did the other.

“As one goes up, the other goes up. As one goes down, the other goes down,” said U of L Criminal Justice researcher Ben Fisher.

Credit Liz Schlemmer
U of L Criminal Justice researcher Ben Fisher.

Fisher said past researchers have long considered these academic and disciplinary racial gaps “two sides of the same coin,” but this study confirms the relationship. The research found a statistically significant correlation between these gaps for black and white students, even when controlling for other variables such as income and neighborhood education levels.

So what can a big urban district with known racial gaps like JCPS take from this study?

“Folks that are facing issues with racial disparities in both discipline and achievement can take heart in this study in the fact that it’s likely that some of the things that will improve the racial disparities in one of those domains might improve the other,” said U of L Criminal Justice researcher Ben Fisher.

Fisher said the study can’t show whether one disparity causes the other, but he said it suggests that interventions like improving staff diversity and student-teacher relationships might help narrow the racial divide in both test scores and disciplinary actions.

Current Racial Gaps In JCPS

This research is relevant to JCPS, whose school board discussed both gaps Tuesday night. For example, here are the latest results of fall MAP tests JCPS uses to track student improvement in reading, divided by race:

Credit JCPS
Reading scores on fall MAP tests, comparison between 2018 and 2019.
Credit JCPS
A comparison of behavior referrals and suspensions divided by student race, compared between the first 6 weeks of 2018-19 school year to the same time period in 2019.

The graphic above shows the total number of suspensions in the first six weeks of the current and last school years for each racial group. Using data from the 2017-18 school year, the rate of suspensions amount to:

  • 59 suspensions for every 100 black male students
  • 32 suspensions for every 100 black female students
  • 17 suspensions for every 100 white male students
  • 8 suspensions for every 100 white female students

This represents the rate of suspensions, not the number of students who were suspended. Some students received multiple suspensions.
The district’s Racial Equity Plan sets goals of reducing the suspension rates of students of color by 10 percent and narrowing achievement gaps between black and white students by 3 percent. The preliminary numbers from the first six weeks of school show progress in the suspension rate gap.

Credit JCPS

As part of the Racial Equity Plan, JCPS has pledged to spend more than $2 million on initiatives for students of color and to hire more minority teachers. JCPS made small gains in hiring more staff of color this fall, to help the district’s teachers and principals better reflect the diversity of students they serve.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.
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