Palm Beach County’s public school system bills itself as Florida’s “top-performing urban school district but its high rating masks some of the state’s largest racial achievement gaps.
While the county’s white students outperform whites statewide and those in most other large counties on key reading scores, the county’s black and Hispanic students lag behind their counterparts statewide.
The disparities are, by some measures, the widest in any of the state’s large urban school districts, a fact that is drawing new concern as top county educators reassess how to measure and improve the public school system’s performance. A Palm Beach Post analysis of state reading test scores from 2014, the latest for which detailed results are available, shows that:
While Palm Beach County’s white 3rd-graders outperformed whites statewide by a wide margin, the county’s blacks and Hispanics trailed their counterparts across Florida.
The gap between Palm Beach County’s white and black 10th-graders was the widest among Florida’s seven most populous counties.
The gap between Palm Beach County’s white and Hispanic 3rd-graders was the widest among Florida’s seven most populous counties.
Palm Beach County’s black and Hispanic students trailed their counterparts in Broward and Dade counties at both the 3rd- and 10th-grade levels, even though the county’s white students outperformed Broward’s and were on par with Dade’s.
Superintendent Robert Avossa recently drew school board members’ attention to the county’s achievement gaps, saying it was important to “shine a bright light” on the troubling disparities.
“This narrative, whether it’s easy to talk about or not, is an important narrative,” Avossa said.
The new superintendent, who took the position this summer, is organizing a five-year strategic plan for the county’s schools, and he is proposing using third-grade scores on the state’s standardized reading test as one of the key metrics for measuring performance. Third grade, considered a milestone year for reading comprehension, is when students first take the state’s standardized tests, the Florida Standards Assessments.
Avossa has spent recent weeks conducting public meetings to talk about the school system’s challenges and field suggestions. Real improvement will be impossible, he said, without setting high standards for students of all kinds, regardless of race, gender, income level or whether English is their first language.
“Do we have a high enough set of expectations for all kids?” he asked in an interview. “Do we believe that a child who has just come from Nicaragua has the ability to have great success?”
No simple explanation
Racial disparities in student achievement are a stubborn reality across the nation. They are closely tied to disparities in income, poverty rates and a host of other social and economic factors that affect student performance.
But the reasons why the achievement gaps are so wide in Palm Beach County appear to elude simple explanations.
“The population characteristics, living conditions and school resources vary widely by location, and all of that would be expected to impact children’s school performance,” said Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the racial and ethnic achievement gap nationally. “A narrower gap may mean that the local schools are especially effective in addressing the needs of low-income minority children, but that’s far from certain.”
While poverty often is used as a predictor of educational success, general poverty statistics offer little insight. Overall, blacks and whites in Palm Beach County are slightly less likely to live in poverty than they are statewide, U.S. Census figures show. Hispanics are slightly more likely to do so.
It’s not clear whether education spending is a factor, either. The county’s relatively affluent tax base allows it to spend more on its public school system than most Florida counties. And like Miami-Dade and Broward, Palm Beach County has a Children’s Services Council, which will collect $102 million this year in property taxes to support and educate young children and new parents.
One factor suggested by Avossa: the county’s high cost of living, which may squeeze the county’s poor families harder than less-costly areas do.
“In communities like Palm Beach [County] that are very expensive to live in, are there more families that are not just living paycheck to paycheck, but are in crisis mode?” Avossa asked.
That level of financial insecurity, he said, can affect families at a visceral level that makes it more difficult for children to succeed. Indeed, a study released this month by Opportunity Nation gave the county a C+ for social mobility. It noted that while inflation-adjusted household incomes fell 4.2 percent nationally during the past four years, they plunged 9.8 percent in the county.
Debra Robinson, the school board’s longest-serving member and the former leader of the county’s Coalition for Black Student Achievement, suspects another factor: unconscious bias. Part of the problem, she said, may be that the county’s schools unintentionally set lower expectation for minority students.
“We’ve done a lot of good work in this district, but we’ve not managed to walk the walk,” she said. ““While we say all children can learn, we act as if we don’t really believe it.”
As evidence, she pointed to the county’s suspension rates, which show that black students are more likely to be suspended for misbehavior than white students. Disparities in student discipline magnify disparities in student performance, she said.
Language barriers a possible factor
The county’s unusually wide achievement gap is not a recent development, said Keith Oswald, the county school district’s chief academic officer.
“We’ve had the trend for a number of years that we’re trailing the state (in minority achievement),” he said. “It’s not new. We just need to make sure we’re being transparent about where our challenges lie.”
Local activists applaud the new attention, saying that closing the gap for years seemed to be a low priority in the county’s schools.
“The culture of our district before was that we sweep things under the rug and basically hope that nobody notices,” said Joaquin Garcia, leader of the county’s Hispanic Education Coalition. “Now transparency is very important.”
Though the extent of the county’s achievement gap seems evident, it’s difficult to parse what it means, Oswald said. Many of the county’s black and Hispanic students face different challenges than most black and Hispanic students statewide, making it difficult to draw direct comparisons.
Many of the county’s black students, for instance, are Haitian immigrants still mastering English. The language barrier is an additional learning challenge that likely is a factor in lower average test scores, he said.
And the county’s Hispanic population includes large percentages of children from rural communities in Guatemala and other Central American countries, many of whom were raised speaking indigenous languages with little or no writing tradition.
Garcia agreed, pointing out that the county’s Hispanic population includes a high number of immigrants associated with wide swaths of cultures, nationalities and even languages. In many respects, it’s difficult to discuss or compare them as one discrete group, he said.
“It’s very complicated,” Garcia said. “Some of them speak Spanish, but not all of them do. They speak their own language, and you have students who come to our school district and their name may be Perez, but they do not speak English and they do not speak Spanish.”
Though the achievement gap is wider in the county than statewide, the numbers are not all grim. By some measures, the county’s minority students do as well as or better than their counterparts statewide by the time they graduate high school.
In 2014, the county’s Hispanic students were slightly more likely to graduate than Hispanic students statewide, while the county’s black students graduated at roughly the same rate as blacks statewide.
And while the county’s Hispanic third-graders did far worse on the state’s reading test than Hispanics statewide, by tenth grade the county’s Hispanic students read at slightly above the state average for Hispanics (though still below Hispanics in Broward and Dade).
Two major studies of the school district’s performance are underway by private consultants, and their reports are sure to trigger more discussion. Even if explanations are elusive for now, understanding what the disparities mean is the first step to solving them, educators and activists say.
“The issue is what is behind that data and what are we going to do about it,” Robinson said.
For this story, The Post examined the percentage of students who scored a 3 or higher on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test during the 2013-14 school year. Students scoring at least a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 are considered by the state to be reading at grade level.