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Achievement Gap Surfaces in Testing

The California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP tests, are conducted every year in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) in grades three through eight, as well as eleventh grade. In recent years, the Berkeley High School (BHS) test scores released by the California Department of Education (CDE) show disparities between certain subgroups such as students of color, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and English language learners, compared to the student body as a whole. CAASPP tests are administered via computer and are aligned with Common Core standards in math and English language arts/literacy.

According to the BHS CAASPP  summary reports for 2018, 54.04 percent of juniors who took the mathematics test and 67.5 percent tested on English language arts/literacy met or exceeded state standards. In comparison, 16.22 percent of Black BHS students met or exceeded state standards in mathematics, and 37.5 percent in English. Furthermore, 31.03 percent of Latinx BHS students tested in math and 45 percent tested in English in 2018 met or exceeded state standards. In contrast, 71.54 percent of white BHS students in mathematics, and 87.07 percent in English met or exceeded state standards.

While BHS students as a whole tested above statewide averages in both English and math, the percentages of Black students at BHS that met or exceeded state standards were below statewide percentages and very similar to scores for Black students statewide. Statewide, 31.37 percent of juniors scored at or above state standards on math, along with 55.96 percent in English. Comparatively, 13.69 percent of Black juniors tested in math, and 36.76 percent tested in English in 2018 scored at or above grade level.  

Economically disadvantaged students and English Language Learners at BHS also met or exceeded standards at a lower rate than the student body as a whole.

“There is such huge overlap between economic opportunity and race. Some of the Latino students that aren’t doing well are English language learners, which also complicates things,” said Universal 9th Grade (U9) Ethnic Studies teacher, Dana Moran.

While test scores are not the only, or necessarily the most, accurate metric of measuring a school’s success in supporting its students, these statistics are consistent with a study conducted by Stanford University from 2009 to 2012, and released in 2016. The study, which analyzed achievement gaps between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds on standardized math and reading tests, revealed that BUSD had one of the largest achievement gaps between Latinx and white students in the United States, and the largest gap between Black and white students.  

Some small learning communities (SLC) at BHS, such as the Berkeley International High School (BIHS), have also faced backlash for their lack of diversity, particularly because BIHS, the SLC often viewed as the most academically challenging, has a majority of white students.

“[Students of color often] report feeling unseen and unnoticed by white peers during group work and other class activities.  Then, when the class conversation turns toward race, all eyes and ears on them,” said BHS principal, Erin Schweng.

While some opposed to the small school system at BHS believe that SLCs further segregate the student body by race, supporters of SLCs argue that they can provide a better learning environment for students who may feel overwhelmed or overlooked in Academic Choice (AC) or BIHS.

“African American students do way better in AMPS, and I think it’s largely because it’s a safe learning environment,” said Moran.

One effort made by BHS in recent years to improve the achievement gap is the U9. Supporters of the U9 argued that it would allow all incoming freshman to begin their high school education on a level playing field, as well as decrease segregation. BHS also requires all freshman to take a semester long ethnic studies class in order to educate students on race issues.

“It’s way too early to tell [if the U9 has lessened the achievement gap]… You’d have to find the retention rates, are kids leaving school, are they getting into colleges, are they graduating A-G eligible? There’s no way you can tell that in 9th grade,” said Moran.

BHS has made efforts in past years to address the achievement gap such as implementing restorative justice and intervention counselors.  However, the achievement gap has persisted at BHS and continues to be reflected in its CAASPP scores.

“Racial achievement gaps persist in our schools because public schools are always a reflection of the society in which they exist.  As long as we struggle with wealth inequality and institutionalized racism in our societal structures, we will have achievement gaps in our schools,” said Schweng.