School officials in suburban Maryland have long debated how to tackle achievement gaps between white students and their classmates of color. But the issue is drawing new attention as Montgomery County rolls out school-by-school accountability report cards.
They show that in math, for example, many Latino children struggle at Greencastle Elementary School in Silver Spring, and that low-income students lag at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, and that disadvantaged African American students are behind at Northwest High School in Germantown.
School officials said they hope the new “equity accountability report card” will shine a light on where schools need to improve and will spur change.
While parents and advocates lauded the step as important and positive, some also described the stark data as troubling.
“We are simultaneously saddened and appalled by the gaps in achievement in many of the schools,” wrote Diego Uriburu, a longtime advocate for Latino youth, and Byron Johns, education chair of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, in a joint letter to school officials.
“Our students and families have a crushing sense of urgency to have corrective actions given the highest priority, as each school year that goes by only increases the achievement gap and the lost potential for a thriving adulthood,” they wrote.
They are asking to meet with administrators on plans and timelines to “radically and immediately work towards improved academic outcomes.”
The report cards come as well-regarded Montgomery, with 163,000 students, has grown increasingly diverse in recent decades, no longer the largely white suburban system it once was.
The student body is 31 percent Hispanic, 28 percent white, 22 percent black, 14 percent Asian and 5 percent multiracial. More than 50,000 of its students get free or reduced price meals at school, an indicator of being at or near poverty level.
School officials say it is important to drill deep into achievement data, to spot disparities that need to be addressed. Especially in large schools, broader positive trends can obscure difficulties faced by smaller student groups.
“We absolutely have a social, an economic and — most importantly, I believe personally — a moral imperative to diminish and eliminate the disparities that exist for different student populations,” Superintendent Jack Smith said this week. “That is the most critical work we are engaged in.”
Last year, state officials released a Maryland report card system that gives schools a rating of one to five stars, with those report cards bringing together data about test scores, curriculum, graduation rates, absenteeism, English language proficiency and other areas.
Montgomery officials said at the time they would also launch a local accountability system, going beyond state and federal requirements. The first phase came in early April. More data will be added over time.
“This is a way to set the stage and hold schools accountable for the success of every student,” said Derek Turner, schools spokesman, adding that the data will be used as educators work on school-based improvement plans.
Under the new system, scores of 0 to 4 are assigned to demographic groups, school by school, each reflecting academic success on several measures in literacy or math.
The gaps can be stark.
“Knowing what you need to fix is a first step,” said Lynne Harris, president of the countywide council of PTAs, who welcomed the data. “I hope it will lead to much more robust and courageous work by the school system.”
Johns, of the NAACP, said he sees tremendous potential for educators, advocates and parents to come together to hold each other accountable for making significant progress, starting in the coming school year.
“My expectation is that this data will mark a new attitude and a new commitment for change that leads to dramatic results,” he said.
The new data “confirms what was have known about for years,” said Uriburu, executive director of the nonprofit organization Identity Inc., which advocates for Latino youths in Montgomery and their families.
But it also provides the evidence advocates and educators need to press harder for change — and spotlights some unsung schools that do very well. Uriburu cited examples including New Hampshire Estates Elementary and Parkland Middle schools.
“They show us it can be done — it’s possible,” Uriburu said.
Cynthia Simonson, vice president for educational issues of the countywide council of PTAs, said the data appears to be a first of its kind for the broader public in Montgomery.
“When numbers like that are made public, I think there is renewed motivation and enthusiasm to really address those areas and demonstrate that they are tackling those concerns,” she said.
She said she hopes as the system evolves, school officials will bring more information together in one place, including details about the basis of the scoring and the number of students captured within each category at each school.
“That we’re at least trying to have the conversation is a strong first step,” she said.