The findings buttress arguments of reformers concerned about high suspension rates for African-American students.
A California study suggests that lowering school suspension rates does not result in lower test scores, lending new ammunition to advocates of school discipline reforms.
The study, conducted by researchers at UCLA, examined suspension rates statewide over a three-year period and analyzed their relationship to California’s academic performance index (API), which measures student performance on various achievement exams.
Researchers looked at suspension data from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014, but only had API data for two academic years because the state switched to a new set of assessments in the third year.
In both years, they found that higher student achievement was related to lower suspension rates for all demographic groups. The correlation was strongest for black students.
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“For those who are suggesting that lower suspension rates are going to hurt the learning environment, this is just one of several studies now that would cast some doubt on that assumption,” said Daniel Losen, the lead author of the study, conducted by the Civil Rights Project, part of the UCLA Graduate School of Education.
More extensive and rigorous studies in Texas and Indiana have found similar results, Losen said.
The Civil Rights Project has advocated for changes to school discipline policies, which often result in higher suspension and expulsion rates for some racial and ethnic groups, especially African-Americans.
The new study found that suspension rates have dropped substantially in California. The rate fell from 11.4 suspensions per 100 students in the 2011-2012 school year to 8.1 per 100 in 2013-2014.
The biggest drop occurred among black students, for whom suspensions fell from 33 per 100 to 25.6 per 100.
Much of the overall drop was the result of a 77 percent decrease in suspensions for less serious, non-violent behavior.
The gap in suspensions for black and white students narrowed but remained substantial, the study found. In the first year of the study, the gap in rates was 24.2 per one hundred students. By the final year, it was 19.1.
Racial disparities in discipline are acute in Seattle, where black students were four times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates during the 2014-2015 school year.
In Seattle as in California, a teacher’s individual judgment has played a large role in whether students are suspended.
While there were only 119 suspensions for clear-cut violations like alcohol, tobacco or drugs, Seattle schools logged a whopping 7,479 incidents for “other behavior” – lower-level offenses such as “disruptive conduct,” “misbehavior” or “rule-breaking.”
In September, the Seattle school board declared a moratorium on suspensions of elementary students who commit certain non-violent offenses.