Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Growing math gap is quirk of labels

I've often said data seldom provides clear answers about education, though it can help people ask better questions.

Latest example:  The case of the growing math gap.

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools released its 2011 school progress reports this week,  Carol Sawyer was shocked to see that in elementary schools,  "the disparity between racial/ethnic groups in math"  had jumped from 22.9 percent to 32.5 percent.  Sawyer,  a member of Mecklenburg ACTS and an advocate for disadvantaged students, didn't think that looked right,  given that the socioeconomic gap in math was virtually unchanged.  Was it a CMS typo, she asked?

CMS data guru Chris Cobitz says his first thought was that she must be right.  None of the earlier analyses had shown a big slump in minority math performance;  in fact, CMS fourth-graders logged an exceptionally strong showing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math exams last year.

But it turned out there was another explanation.  For the first time this year,  CMS carved off Pacific islanders as a separate ethnic group.  In 2009-10,  those students had been counted as Asians,  who traditionally perform well on exams.  So the 2009-10 "racial/ethnic disparity"  was based on the gap between pass rates for black and white students,  he said.  In 2010-11, the very small number of Pacific islanders logged the lowest overall pass rate,  so the latest racial/ethnic gap was based on the difference between them and white students.  The black-white gap showed little change, he said.

Cobitz says questions about the data are helpful,  not only to the concerned citizens who are confused but to CMS leaders trying to paint a clear picture.  "We want the feedback," he said.  Stay tuned for reporting on some other questions raised by the reports,  concerning graduation projections and teacher evaluations.

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