A new report is sounding the alarm on how far Washington’s education system is from achieving racial equity.
While Washington has taken many steps to better serve students of color and students from low-income households, it’s not close to the finish line, according to various sources of data collected before a global pandemic disrupted learning for everyone. So says the Education Trust, an education civil rights group based in Washington, D.C., in a report released Tuesday.
The pandemic threatens to worsen these systemic problems. “Even before the pandemic, Washington’s students of color were also less likely to have rigorous, engaging, culturally reflective, and positive educational experiences,” the report said. “These school closures and the continuing challenge surrounding distance learning serve as a stark reminder of the important role that schools can play.”
Washington’s student body has become more diverse, with an 18% increase in students of color between the 2012-2013 and the 2017-2018 academic years. The state has moved in the right direction on college affordability, dual-language education, a pilot program to help track graduation readiness, discipline reform and preschool access, according to the report, titled “Right Direction. Miles to go.”
But, at the same time:
- High schools are graduating different groups of students at vastly different rates. In 2019, schools did not get one in 7 Black students, 1 in 4 Native American students, 1 in 6 low-income students and 3 in 20 Latino students to the finish line.
- Before students can access free or reduced college tuition, they face hurdles: In 2019, 1 in 5 Black students who took the SAT met college readiness benchmarks.
- On national exams, Washington’s students from low-income backgrounds performed below their peers in 27 other states.
- The state standardized tests found that fewer than two-thirds of fourth graders — and 40% of Black fourth graders — were reading at grade level.
The report’s goal was to remind Washington state leaders and legislators — some of whom have implied that they were done with large-scale education changes after the 2018 overhaul of school funding, called the McCleary fix — that there’s a lot more that needs to change, said Lynn Jennings, EdTrust’s senior director of national and state partnerships.
“You might think you’ve done this (fixed education) but you might just be chipping away at it and not getting to the heart of it or … you leave it alone,” she said. EdTrust doesn’t want people here to “drop the mic” on education policy.
“There was a lot of fatigue, people were left with a lot of scars and wounds” after the funding overhaul, she added. “There was a fear that with that and with other changes being made, that the state has been walking away from equity.”
On average, Washington state gives high-poverty districts 8% more in funding than low-poverty districts, the report said, but after adjusting for students’ needs, that difference comes out to just 1%.
The report comes as state and national education leaders rethink the measurement tools and guardrails of education policy. Already, there’s one year of missing data as the coronavirus canceled standardized testing last spring; that might happen again depending on President-elect Joe Biden’s choice and the validity of administering these tests remotely.
Some educators question whether the testing metrics, including those cited in the EdTrust report, accurately characterize the strengths of students of color. Jennings said she sees standardized testing as imperfect, but one piece of the puzzle. According to the report, “the reality is that Black students, Latino students, Native students, and students from low-income backgrounds have dramatically different experiences in Washington’s schools than their White and higher-income peers.”
The report also comes as many leaders and educators of color are moving away from what they call deficit-based language — “achievement gap,” “at risk,” “disadvantaged” — as ways to characterize systemic problems.
“Once a year assessments don’t do justice to how to measure student learning over time,” said Michaela Miller, Washington’s deputy superintendent at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), in a recent interview. “This has been an issue for a long time.”
Jennings said EdTrust argued against throwing the whole school accountability system away. State leaders think it’s possible to move beyond the current system without totally letting districts off the hook.
“Transparency doesn’t have to be sacrificed in order to make progress on these ideas,” said Tennille Jeffries-Simmons, who was recently appointed as chief of staff to OSPI’s superintendent Chris Reykdal.
The report frames Washington’s low marks as a threat to economic growth, especially as the state faces unprecedented job loss. Addressing them is a “moral and economic imperative,” Jennings said. One place where more work is needed, she said: early learning.
In 2018, Washington increased state funding for early childhood education by 11%, enrolling 800 more kids in state-funded programs that year and 1,000 the following year. Washington enrolled 13% of Black and Latino 3- and 4-year-olds in that state-funded preschool in the 2017-2018 school year.
How to move past these shortcomings? The report recommends that in addition to making college more affordable, legislation should help support districts and schools in providing “a strong foundation for students well before they enter ninth grade.”
Washington should boost its early childhood education investments, focus on growing a diverse teacher workforce, shore up its pipeline of fully-credentialed teachers, open access to advanced coursework, increase the counselor-to-student ratio, and make schools feel safer and more welcoming to students of all backgrounds.