A lack of data has long hindered school-discipline improvements, particularly regarding treatment of students of different races. That’s about to change. Now everyone will be able to see which districts suspend or expel the most students.

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For the first time, student discipline and graduation rates across Washington school districts can be easily compared, using new data-analysis tools unveiled Tuesday by state education officials.

The hope, said Kristen Jaudon, a spokeswoman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), is that better information will help educators make better decisions around the thorny issue of disproportionate discipline.

In Washington — as nationally — black students are suspended at rates that far exceed their overall enrollment. Last year, 8.6 percent of African-American kids were removed from Washington classrooms for misbehaving. They make up 4.8 percent of all students.

Related stories

This is one in a series of Education Lab stories exploring the problems of school discipline and how school districts are working to alleviate them. Others include:

• Suspending kids doesn’t fix bad behavior; schools look for answers

• In school discipline, intervention may work better than punishment

• “You are more than your mistakes”: Teachers get at roots of bad behavior

Beyond concerns about equity, school discipline is attracting increased attention as a driver of persistent gaps in academic achievement. African Americans, for example, are sent home more frequently and miss more class time. They also post lower test scores and graduation rates.

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In Seattle, skewed suspension rates for Native Americans, blacks and special-education kids attracted federal attention in 2012, and the U.S. Department of Education has been combing through the district’s discipline data ever since. The newest numbers, however, were hailed by Seattle as a cause for celebration.

City schools reduced overall suspension and expulsion rates substantially between 2013 and 2014, going from 4.3 to 3.4 percent of all students, and narrowing disproportionality, too.

“It’s going down — not much as we’d like yet, but we’re very pleased,” said Ruth McFadden, who directs Seattle’s discipline efforts. “We are really, honestly pushing to reduce suspensions.”

The relationship between school discipline and academic performance has become increasingly clear. A longitudinal study of nearly 1 million Texas schoolchildren showed that even one suspension increases the odds for repeating a grade. About 10 percent of Texas students suspended after seventh grade dropped out.

Changes in approach

In response to such fallout, some Washington districts are making huge changes in the way they tackle misbehavior — using in-school suspension instead of sending kids home, and seeking to unearth the roots of defiance, rather than simply punishing it.

In Highline, for example, suspensions have plummeted, from 5.8 percent of all students in 2013 to 2.7 percent last year.

Changes like that rarely come without a backlash. Many teachers in the high-poverty district say they have been pushed to keep disruptive kids in their classrooms at a cost to other students.

Key to understanding the new OSPI analysis tool is the “composition index,” a numeric indication of disproportionality. But those numbers can look high in districts with few students of color, such as Issaquah, where just a few students can make a large difference.

Discipline that works: A community conversation

Education Lab invites you to a conversation on school discipline Wednesday at South Seattle College. Light dinner at 5:30 p.m.; program at 6:30 p.m. Registration required at seati.ms/disciplineforall. Free.

Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno quickly responded to OSPI’s data release, saying she was not surprised by her district’s relatively high 6.5 percentage rate for students suspended or expelled (down slightly from 6.8 percent the year before).

“We have known we have a serious problem and have invested heavily to change that,” Santorno said in an emailed statement, adding that she told 700 community members last fall that she was deeply concerned by disproportionate discipline.

But Jonathan Johnson, who chairs of the Tacoma NAACP education committee, is most troubled by discipline variations among schools, rather than among districts.

“If you go to north Tacoma, people there will swear up and down that there’s nothing wrong,” he said. “But if you live elsewhere in Tacoma and your child has been suspended three times in the first grade, or expelled, I think you’d have a different conclusion. We have to have the courage to look at our blind spots.”

The OSPI data release has been long-awaited — ever since a state law went into effect last fall mandating that schools keep better track of discipline and show whether they are providing academic help to suspended kids.

According to a 2013 report from Washington Appleseed, only 7 percent of students removed from school received any educational help before returning. Most districts didn’t even track that information.

Despite urging from a state discipline-task force, the academic-services information remains absent from OSPI’s data. So does any count of how long students are suspended, the frequency of those punishments per child and for which kinds of behaviors.

Tim Stensager, director of data governance, said much of that is coming in the next three months.

To use the new OSPI discipline-analysis tool, go to: http://www.k12.wa.us/DataAdmin/PerformanceIndicators/DataAnalytics.aspx.