The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The growing achievement gap in Montgomery County schools must be addressed

(Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Jack R. Smith is superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools.

For 50 years, the achievement gap in Montgomery County has grown in the shadows while many of our county’s schools and students garnered well-deserved praise and earned awards. Despite efforts by county leaders, the gap continued to grow, overshadowed by aggregated data, which allowed the struggles of some students to be masked behind the outcomes of their peers in one of the nation’s largest school districts.

This disparity in academic outcomes is a crisis in our community that must be addressed. If we are committed to ensuring that all students, regardless of background, meet their full potential, we must first shine a bright light into those shadows and disaggregate student outcomes across multiple measures.

Our school system has a long history of high levels of success for many students, but not all. Research shows that the achievement gap disproportionately affects students of color and students affected by poverty. However, it is difficult to act intentionally on behalf of these students when student data is aggregated. For instance, the Maryland Public Schools Report Card is a valuable tool to compare jurisdictions across the state. However, its aggregate approach and single-focused, end-of-year academic measurement tool (the PARCC test) allows school districts neither to understand which subgroups may need additional focus to close the gaps nor act in a timely manner for those students who need immediate intervention and support.

To hold ourselves accountable for all student outcomes, Montgomery County Public Schools has launched the Equity Accountability Model , a reporting tool designed to determine the impact schools have on the opportunity to learn and opportunity to excel for student groups that have historically underperformed in our schools. These student groups are:

● Black or African American students affected by poverty

● Black or African American students not in poverty

● Hispanic or Latino students affected by poverty

● Hispanic or Latino students not in poverty

● White, Asian and students of two or more races who are affected by poverty.

There is also a monitoring group that includes white, Asian and students of two or more races who are not in poverty. For each of these groups, classroom measures (teacher assessments), districtwide measures (common district assessments) and external measures (national or state assessments) are gathered, organized and analyzed to evaluate student learning. Students must meet two of these three measures to demonstrate readiness for the next learning level. The Equity Accountability Model measures the impact that each school has on its student focus group population, independently of how large or small that population is.

In some cases, the data reaffirms what we already know: The majority of white and Asian students not in poverty experience great success in our schools. In other cases, data confirms what we assumed: An achievement gap exists for some students of color, some students in poverty and, most significantly, some students of color in poverty.

The data also shatters some myths about which schools best serve students. The Equity Accountability Model shows that schools situated in communities across all socioeconomic levels have demonstrated success serving all students. This connotes that the educators in any given school are the most important factor in determining student outcomes.

Additionally, the Equity Accountability Model counters the myth perpetuated when performance by a racial group is not evaluated in the context of the impact of poverty. We see very different and improved performance outcomes for our focus groups when poverty is not a factor. Over the years, generalized performance reporting by race has led only to perceptions that students within a focus population race group have the same lower performance. This gives the faulty appearance that the gap is larger for all members of that race group when, in fact, we find that for race group members not affected by poverty, performance is higher.

As the Equity Accountability Model is expanded and enhanced, it will include disaggregated data about students in special education programs and English language learners, as well as data points for graduation, school climate and more.

Our focused efforts on developing a local Equity Accountability Model will move us to the next level in reducing disparities in performance among all student groups. The model is part of our comprehensive approach to closing gaps in student outcomes.

Equity does not require equal results and achievement. Equity requires equal access and opportunity so that success cannot be predicted by race or socioeconomic status.

There is a crisis in our community that has been in the shadows for a half-century. We must use data as a flashlight to act with urgency, purpose and passion to combat this crisis and give all students the access and opportunity they need to succeed.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Maryland still has no idea how to fix its public schools

The Post’s View: Maryland’s new school report card is on the right track. But it still has shortcomings.

The Post’s View: Montgomery County’s grade inflation should be a wake-up call

Nancy Navarro: Montgomery can do better by Latino students