California School District Improves Academic Performance of Black Students

Test scores for most K-12 student groups in California have remained stagnant since the pandemic, including for Black students. However, Emery Unified, a small district located between Berkeley and Oakland, has managed to reverse this trend. Despite still having scores below the state average, Emery Unified saw significant improvements in math and English language arts scores for their Black students. Chronic absenteeism also decreased by 8.4 percentage points, which is higher than the state average. The principal of Emery High School, Jessica Goode, expressed her elation at the improved scores and acknowledged the challenges in achieving this success.

Positive Trends in African American Student Performance at Emery Unified

Emery Unified has a high population of Black students, making up almost half of the student body. Despite having scores below the state average, Emery Unified’s Black students have shown improvement while statewide scores remain stagnant or slightly declining. The percentage of Black students meeting or exceeding the state English language arts standards increased by over 12 percentage points, and math scores climbed from 9% to 15%. Emery’s Black students outperformed their peers in English and approached the state average in math.

Tyrone Howard, an education professor at UCLA, commended the improvements and highlighted the need to replicate this success. He noted the historical academic disparities faced by Black students, citing factors such as experienced teachers, homelessness, foster care, poverty, and racism as hurdles to their success. The funding system in California has also been criticized for leaving Black students without the necessary resources, but recent changes in the funding formula aim to address this issue.

The presence of Black teachers has been shown to significantly impact the academic success of Black students. In Emery Unified, hiring Black teachers has been a priority, with over 30% of the district’s teachers being Black, compared to the statewide average of 3.9%. Research has indicated that Black students with at least one Black teacher in the early grades are more likely to graduate and attend college. Black teachers have higher expectations for their Black students and are less likely to view them as disruptive or inattentive.

Strategies for Improving Test Scores at Emery Unified

Emery High School implemented various strategies to improve test scores even before the pandemic. Principal Jessica Goode and her staff closely analyzed student performance data and curriculum, providing extra support to struggling students. The school also adopted a “grading for equity” system, placing more emphasis on assessing students’ knowledge rather than behavior or homework compliance. Additional tactics included offering after-school tutoring, organizing college tours, enhancing skilled trades programs, and expanding mental health resources.

Math teacher Jesus Herrera credited the collaboration between math teachers at Emery High for the increase in math scores. They aligned their lesson plans and set higher standards, ensuring smooth transitions between algebra and geometry. The positive results have been satisfying for the teachers, as their efforts have paid off.

High school junior Jordan King, who is Black, appreciates the supportive environment at Emery High. With many teachers of color in leadership roles, King feels understood and taught history without bias. He values his teachers’ influence in motivating him to excel academically and hopes to attend college, possibly pursuing a career in politics, law, or history.

Improvements in Writing Skills and Accountability

Samantha Burke, the elementary school principal, identified three initiatives contributing to the turnaround in test scores and chronic absenteeism. The first initiative focuses on developing writing skills from an early age, gradually progressing from drawing pictures to writing short sentences. This approach has benefited students’ reading abilities as well. Elementary English language arts scores showed a 5 percentage point increase.

Another change focused on accountability, with teachers sharing students’ standardized test scores and setting goals during individual meetings. Students who achieved or surpassed grade-level standards were recognized with awards and celebrations, creating higher expectations. Despite high chronic absenteeism, efforts to improve attendance led to an 8 percentage point decrease from the previous year.

Principal Burke expressed relief and a sense of progress upon seeing the improved scores. The practices implemented are seen as positive steps forward, and the school plans to continue making progress.

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