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Report: Racial disparities persist on test scores, hiring and discipline in Virginia’s largest school system

Scott Brabrand, superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, said the school system has put measures in place to address an achievement gap that has “existed far too long and in far too many places.” (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Black and Hispanic students in Virginia’s largest school system still lag behind white and Asian classmates on state reading and math tests, despite efforts in Fairfax County Public Schools to narrow those achievement gaps.

That’s according to the latest report by the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee, a group of parents, teachers and school system employees appointed by the Fairfax County School Board. The group issued its annual report last week, which mirrored findings from the three past years that racial gaps on Standards of Learning test scores haven’t budged since 2005.

The report also detailed disparities in hiring, student discipline and access to advanced courses in the nearly 188,000-student school system, mirroring challenges that have vexed educators in public schools throughout the country.

Wilfred Grant Jr., a Fairfax parent who is the committee’s chairman, told the Fairfax County School Board on Thursday that the lack of progress stems in part from viewing the disparities as isolated, rather than related, problems.

“These are not one-off issues; they’re connected. One feeds the other and it feeds the next one,” he said. “You’ve got students being sent to the principal’s office. They’re not getting instruction. They’re not going to pass.”

Grant said in an interview that he was encouraged by the school system’s efforts in recent years to address disparities, including appointing an ombudsman to help resolve complaints.

Scott Brabrand, who started as Fairfax schools chief in 2017, said the school system has put in measures to address an achievement gap that has “existed far too long and in far too many places.”

“I acknowledge the frustration,” Brabrand said in an interview. “I am convinced Fairfax County Public Schools can dramatically close that gap in the next few years.”

Fairfax schools have outlined goals to tackle academic disparities, including ensuring students have the support they need and building relationships with families, schools and teachers. The school system, Brabrand said, has added positions at each of its campuses dedicated to equity.

In 2018, 89 percent of white students in Fairfax public schools and 92 percent of Asian students passed state math tests, according to data compiled by the committee. Meanwhile, 65 percent of Hispanic students and 69 percent of black students passed.

On state reading exams, 91 percent of white students and 90 percent of Asian students passed. Sixty-two percent of Hispanic and 72 percent of black students received passing marks.

The gap narrowed in the few years before Virginia introduced more rigorous state math and reading tests in 2012 and 2013, the report showed. The new exams caused overall pass rates to dip in Fairfax, but black and Hispanic students experienced the most precipitous drops in scores, widening a gap that has not closed.

Why are black and Hispanic students underrepresented in this Northern Virginia gifted program?

Black and Hispanic students — along with students who are English learners, who receive subsidized meals or who have disabilities — were underrepresented in advanced academic programs, according to the report. The committee said teachers are referring more black and Hispanic students to the most advanced courses, but the school system must better educate parents of color on their right to appeal if their child is deemed ineligible for advanced work.

Disparities in student discipline have also persisted, the committee found. In the 2016-2017 school year, Hispanic students made up 40 percent of out-of-school suspensions and black students made up 30 percent, despite making up 26 percent and 10 percent of the student population, respectively.

The report also examined the lack of teacher diversity in Fairfax, a subject of scrutiny in recent years.

Just 17 percent of Fairfax teachers in 2018 were Asian, black or Hispanic, while students from those groups made up 56 percent of the student population, according to the report. About 23 percent of schools had no black teachers, no Hispanic teachers or no teachers from either group. And 38 percent of campuses had only one black or Hispanic teacher.

Fairfax’s student population is far more diverse: In the 2018-2019 school year, about 39 percent of students were white, 26 percent were Hispanic, 20 percent were Asian, 10 percent were black and 6 percent were multiracial.

Study of Fairfax County schools finds discrimination against black teacher applicants

Research has documented the ways in which race and ethnicity influence interactions between teachers and students. A study by Vanderbilt University researchers found black students taught by black teachers are more likely to be assigned to gifted programs at rates similar to their white peers. They are also three times more likely to be assigned to those programs than black students with similar academic ability and family background who are taught by teachers of other races.

Researchers at George Mason University published a study in 2017 describing what they believed was evidence of hiring discrimination in Fairfax County schools.

Black applicants, the study found, were far less likely than white candidates to get job offers even though, on average, they had more advanced degrees and classroom experience. Brabrand has promised to redouble the school system’s efforts to court a more racially diverse cadre of teachers.

“We still have, really, diversity deserts where there’s simply no diversity in a school, and that’s what this report says,” Brabrand said, referring to school employees. “All of our schools have diverse kids in them, and it’s not right that we’ve got dozens of schools with nobody of color” on staff.

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