PAUSD takes initiatives to address student achievement disparities

Secondary school officials and the Board of Education are taking initiatives to combat demographic disparities in student performance after reviewing this year’s first quarter data which was presented during the Nov. 15 Board meeting.

Guillermo Lopez, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Educational Services, said there are three key factors that lead to failing grades.

“Students (with chronic absenteeism) are seven and a half times more likely to receive an F,” Lopez said at the meeting. “Socioeconomic disadvantaged students (are) six times more likely to receive an F. If you’re Hispanic, you’re five times more likely to receive an F.”

The board looked at first quarter Ds, Fs, Incompletes and No Marks across all secondary schools. After sorting these non-passing grades by race, Lopez said certain demographics are more likely to receive an F instead of an NM. According to Paly’s 2022-23 Course Catalog, students cannot earn credit for any F grades they receive in a course. However, a grade of NM means the teacher has insufficient course work completed to determine a grade.

“Hispanic students have a (one-to-one) chance of receiving a No Mark and an F,” Lopez said at the meeting. “White students have (two) chances to receive a No Mark and one chance to receive an F. Asian students have two and a half chances to receive a No Mark compared to one for an F. If students are white or Asian, they are twice as likely to receive a No Mark over an F compared to Hispanic students.”

Board member Jesse Ladomirak said if the data measured As, Bs and Cs, the percentages for each demographic would be flipped.

“It feels logical to me to think that if we looked at As and Bs, you would be more likely to get an A and B if you were white or Asian,” Ladomirak said.

Board member Jennifer DiBrienza said the district aims to remove the bias of grading systems.

“When you can predict outcomes based on demographics, there’s only two things that are possible,” DiBrienza said. “You (either) think that certain demographics are more capable than others, or you think there’s bias in the system.”

DiBrienza said the data shows students of a certain ethnicity or race are at a disadvantage.

“We have found that sometimes we are failing even our students of color who are not low-income,” DiBrienza said. “And so there is no reason for that, except for their demographics. PAUSD has admitted that there is bias in our system, and we are working to dismantle it.”

One way PAUSD addresses educational equity is through System Wide Integrated Framework for Transition, a plan to enact institutional and structural change within the district.

“We have lots of staff members at the school site, district level and classroom level doing equity work and looking at these biases and trying to fix them,” DiBrienza said.

High schools, in particular, have begun to look at their grading practices to confront the F and NM data separated by race. According to Paly’s action plan, which addresses student performance, Paly’s Ed Council discussed the 2021-2022 F and NM data after the October Professional Development session.

“There is no current rationale within Ed Council for using both F/NM given the inconsistencies around the data when disaggregated by race. We will revisit this conversation in future Ed Council meetings to determine next steps for eliminating the disparities seen in last year’s data,” the report said.

In addition to support systems for students with Ds and Fs, DiBrienza said another way to make grading practices more efficient is to increase transparency around the use of soft skills in grades. To make grading clearer, DiBrienza said schools should move towards standards-based grading.

“The benefit of evidence-based grading is that teachers make clear what their expectations are before assessments,” DiBrienza said. “I think everyone agrees that mapping a four to an A and a three to a B or C is not really helpful.”

Ladomirak said variances in grading practices between teachers in the same course can also lead to unfair outcomes for students.

“(Students) should be graded the same no matter which teacher it is or which school they’re at,” Ladomirak said. “And the frustrating thing for students is it’s all showing up the same on the transcript. We don’t know that if you’re in a certain teacher’s class, you’re more likely to get an A than if you’re in a different teacher’s class.”

Ladomirak said along with family, teacher, counselor and site council engagement, student input is crucial for the Board’s next steps.

“The annual and biannual Panorama and California Healthy Kids surveys are definitely something we look at very closely at the board level,” Ladomirak said.

Ladomirak also said she hopes the district can incorporate more student voices.

“I would love some infrastructure in place in our district where student voice is more systematized,” Ladomirak said. “It should be a place where their voices will be heard and they know the person representing them is going to work hard to bring diverse viewpoints.”

DiBrienza said while removing biases in schools will be difficult, PAUSD is currently implementing fairer practices for its students.

“Every school district in America and just about every system in America probably has biases in some ways,” DiBrienza said. “We happen to be a community that has funding that we can put towards these initiatives, and we have a highly educated and engaged population of community members, families and parents. So if anyone can do it, I’d like to think we can.”