Data Spotlight: What is happening with the Black-White Performance Gap in Washington?

Staff member Andrew Parr made a presentation to the State Board of Education on January 8, 2015 on changes to the performance gap between White and Black students. The questions being considered here are:

  1. Is the performance gap between Black and White students in Washington narrowing or widening?
  2. How does the increasing or decreasing Black-White performance gap for Washington students compare to the other states?


To answer the study questions, SBE analyzed NAEP 4th and 8th grade reading and math assessment data from 2003 and 2013. The NAEP State Comparison online tool computes the average scaled score differences for a NAEP assessment between two administrations for the groups being compared; in this case, Black and White students. The gap differences for each of the four NAEP assessments were computed separately, averaged, and collapsed into the table and chart shown below. In this analysis, a positive value means that the average scaled score difference was greater in 2013 than 2003, but a positive value is undesirable as we would hope to see gaps narrowing over time.

*Note: Gap is the average scaled score difference on the NAEP between Black and White student groups.

*Note: Gap is the average scaled score difference on the NAEP between Black and White student groups.



For each of the four NAEP assessments, the Black-White performance gap was larger in 2013 as compared to the performance gap in 2003. The average performance gap increase for Washington students was 4.1 scaled score points (the second largest in the United States), while the U.S. average was a 2.9 scaled score point decrease.

More about this Analysis

Even though the White-Black performance gap as measured by the NAEP assessments widened for the years analyzed, the average scaled scores for both groups increased on most measures. The data show that for each NAEP measure, the gain by the White student group is greater than the gain of the Black student group, and this causes the performance gap to widen for the years in question. For the White-Black performance gap to narrow, gains by the Black student group must exceed gains made by the White student group.

2013 NAEP data also show that the Black student group in Washington is among the highest performing of the states with reportable populations. On the 4th Grade NAEP, the Washington Black student group was ranked the 8th highest in reading and the 6th highest in math. On the 8th Grade NAEP, the Washington Black student group was ranked the 5th highest in reading and the 7th highest in math.

The NAEP assessment program provides an excellent database from which to monitor student progress, but the conclusions drawn from these data should be tempered for two important reasons:

  1. Data for 12 of the United States are not included in this analysis because the NAEP reporting standards were not met for one or both of the student groups on one or more of the NAEP assessments. The most common cause for this type of omission is an insufficient sample size from which to generalize to the population. It would be more accurate to characterize Washington’s gap widening as the second largest increase of states with reportable data.
  2. The disaggregation into additional student groups (including the Two or More student group) in 2011 has an impact on this gap analysis. The White and Black student groups are not formulated on the same criteria in 2003 as in 2013, which means that the Black student group formulated in 2003 is not perfectly comparable to the Black student group formulated in 2013. The same can be said of the White student groups for the same years.

Compared to other states, the Washington Black student group performs at a higher than average level and the student group is improving. However, even considering limitations of the data, the White-Black performance gap is unacceptably large and has not narrowed.

For more information, you can also watch the full presentation to the Board.

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ESEA Reauthorization

The State Board of Education continues to analyze the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization process. A key aspect of this work is to make understandable a very complicated bill by dividing it into major conceptual segments for the Board’s next discussion in March.

How can we simplify this big law? To start, thanks to Andy Smarick, for putting together a helpful policy continuum graph (below) on the major issues at play in the ESEA reauthorization.


Smarick’s graph gives a sense of where on the policy continuum these various issues could land. He identifies the two extreme positions, and then attempts to create potential pragmatic landing spots in the center. Smarick created this graph in response to another helpful graph by Mike Petrilli.

Petrilli’s graph can probably best be described as ESEA policy odds-making: among the issues in play, what is likely to survive, what is not likely to survive, and what could go either way.

Together, these graphs are an excellent introduction to the ESEA reauthorization discussion. Checker Finn notes that a lot of important policy is being overlooked as many focus on testing issues, ignoring existing policy in federal law on English language learners, impact aid policy, etc.

Why do we care so much about federal policy? Although the State Board of Education is a state policy agency, federal K-12 law frames state policy discussions in a way that can limit – or even eliminate – options before we even start.

The goal of aligning Washington’s system into one unified accountability picture has to start with understanding what we need to do for federal Title 1 schools. That’s something we started when we implemented the Achievement Index. For example, we establish policy for the lowest performing five percent of schools in the state. Of those, let’s say two-thirds are title schools. In order to establish a truly aligned system, we need to start with the requirements of Title 1 schools and build from there to craft a unified policy for all impacted schools. In this way, the ESEA law can affect policy decisions for all schools.

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Exit exams for high school graduation

Dear stakeholders:

At its meeting last week, the State Board of Education adopted a position statement on the subject of requiring exit exams for high school graduation. The statement and the supporting materials have been posted to the SBE website. This was the third consecutive meeting in which the Board engaged in deep discussion on this issue, which has attracted considerable interest from stakeholders across the state. My purpose is to give you some highlights of that discussion, and how it shapes the Board’s work going forward.

The final adopted statement reaffirms the Board’s previous position – exit exams should play a part in how the state defines a meaningful high school diploma. Members emphasized, however, that we need to continue to develop alternative pathways for students who don’t test well and need other methods to demonstrate their acquisition of the Washington Learning Standards. The Board committed to continuing to monitor and study the effects of these requirements over time.

The Board discussed exit exams not as a single high-stakes test of readiness for life beyond high school, but rather as part of a series of opportunities for students to demonstrate proficiency on state standards and readiness for the next step in their educational journey. Requiring demonstration of proficiency sends an important message of urgency about the challenges before them. Our students will encounter similar challenges throughout young adulthood and during their transition to the workforce. These requirements, we believe, are the appropriate preparation.

As a system, we are in the midst of a transition period. The Board recognizes that the transition to an 11th grade SBAC exit exam for graduation under current law poses certain practical challenges for the collection of evidence process, and believes that additional alternative options may be necessary to offer students multiple pathways to a diploma. Several options were discussed, all of which would require legislative changes.

Students who have earned college credit through a variety of dual credit programs, such as Running Start and College in the High School, could be considered to have already demonstrated their readiness for college-level work, and thus to have satisfied an alternative pathway. 12th grade transition courses – courses geared to prepare students for entry into credit-bearing coursework in post-secondary institutions – could be similarly recognized as an alternative pathway. The Board also expressed preliminary interest in other options, including completion of Career and Technical Education programs of study or industry certifications, but seeks additional time to understand the extent of equivalency to Washington Learning Standards. Again, implementation of any of these promising changes would require legislative action.

The Board reiterated its position on ending the End-of-Course biology exam as a graduation requirement. On this point the Board was unanimous – focusing Washington students on biology at the expense of a broader exposure to STEM curriculum works against efforts to implement the Next Generation Science Standards. While the Board supports exit exams, they have to be thoughtful. The biology EOC stems from a time when the Legislature contemplated multiple end-of-course exams to assess a variety of scientific subjects and content, but never quite got there. We shouldn’t continue the exam as a graduation requirement only because we have nothing linked to the Next Generation standards to replace it. Accordingly, we have recommended to the Legislature its immediate elimination as a graduation requirement; however, making this change requires legislation.

Finally, the Board adopted Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium-recommended threshold scores for use in Washington State. These are the minimum scale scores that define the ‘career and college-readiness’ achievement level on the new assessments. These are the levels of achievement we want for all students. During the transition, however, these scores will not be a requirement for graduation. The Board recognizes the need for a transition period, as we acclimate to these new, higher, expectations. Accordingly, a second threshold score will be set for the diploma exit requirements in the interim, likely in August of this year. The Board’s intent is to eventually unify the two standards as we work to fully implement the effort of career and college readiness for all students in this state. This helpful video provides a more detailed explanation.

The Board appreciates hearing from stakeholders across the state on these issues. All of your notes are shared with Board members. Please be in touch at

The central theme of our work as a Board is the challenge of simultaneously raising standards for all students, while also increasing the number of students meeting those standards.  Not only do we believe this is something we can do, but something we must do. We regard you all as partners in this important work.

On behalf of the Board,

Ben Rarick

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2014 Report to the Legislature on the Statewide Indicators of Educational System Health

From Chair Muñoz-Colón:

On December 1, 2014, the State Board of Education sent our report on educational system health indicators as required pursuant to Chapter 282, Laws of 2013 (SB 5491) to the education committees of the Legislature.

The 2013 statute has a relatively simple – and laudable – goal: to establish a system report card, or “health chart,” for the educational system, and to review our progress toward these goals periodically to see if the strategies we are pursuing are consistent with our goals.  Are state agencies working together toward a common cause, aligning their policies for the benefit of students and families?  As a state, do the budgets we adopt reflect our values and expectations as expressed in these goals?  These are basic, fundamental questions that any effective organization must address in their strategic planning, and the tax-paying public expects no less of state government and its oversight of the public school system.

Exactly one year ago, we provided a report which established ‘baseline values and initial goals for the system’ as required by the law.  This year, our report, produced collaboratively with key stakeholder groups, focuses more heavily on recommended reforms to put us on target to meet our stated goals.  A few key ‘take-aways’ are worth noting.

First, this is a challenging time for goal-setting in our state.  Transitioning to college- and career-ready standards (both Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards) makes year-to-year student outcome comparisons difficult.  We will need to revisit target-setting when achievement levels reset.

Furthermore, our ability to completely align system goals with school-level goals has been frustrated by the absence of an Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility waiver for schools.  Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), virtually all schools are failing under Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), as 100% proficiency was required for all schools this school year.  This leaves our state with a difficult choice: set system goals that align with somewhat meaningless federal AYP targets, or create new system goals that are not aligned, but introduce new meaning into the goals-setting landscape for our state.  In this report, we chose the latter option.

Despite these challenges, we believe our student data ultimately tells a story that we need to listen to as a state.  It’s a story of hope and aspiration, but also of tremendous challenge.  Our data tells us that it is possible for every student to succeed and overcome obstacles to achieve career and college-readiness.  Examples of this abound.  Unfortunately, these examples tend to be the exception rather than the system norm.

How do we reverse this trend?  In the view of the State Board of Education, a few key realities must be confronted to truly address these challenges.  First, there is very little reason to believe that offering the same educational system in perpetuity will produce meaningfully different results for our students.  We believe producing equitable outcomes for all students requires bold change, both in the way we deliver instruction, and the amount and types of instruction we intend to deliver.

Second, we must acknowledge that the achievement and opportunity gaps we hope to close materialize very early in a child’s life.  Indeed, in all the data that we looked at, gaps were present at the very earliest stages.  And, depending on the indicator, these gaps either held constant or grew throughout a student’s educational career when analyzing data at the system level.  The stark reality is that, with a few exceptions, during a student’s educational journey the system tends to perpetuate or even increase the size of these gaps, rather than close them.

In general, the data tell us that our low income students, and students of color, start behind and stay behind.   As a group, they begin schooling in a deficit situation across a range of readiness indicators relative to their peers, and on an annual basis, they might acquire less than a full year’s worth of learning when their peers are acquiring more than a year.  As a result, the gap steadily widens each year.  This seems to hold true for virtually every aspect of student performance that we can quantify.

Therefore, closing the achievement gap requires us to reverse growth gaps – to think about how we can increase the rate of learning experienced by our lower-achieving student subgroups on an annual basis, such that they accelerate and graduate from our system on equal footing with their peers. One of the ways that we can do this is to do a better job of leveraging the strengths that students bring to their education that are not currently being valued and supported by the system. Framing the challenge in this way creates a sense of urgency for the system, and also puts clearly into focus just how significant the commitment will need to be on the part of the state and individual school districts to achieve it.

In conclusion, the data tells us a story that is ultimately a call to action.  We need to think systematically about the role opportunity gaps at all levels play in creating barriers to college- and career-readiness.  Specifically, we need to rethink what is meant by “basic education.”  We need to think about the role that “summer loss” and after school and extended day programs play in a student’s educational journey.  We need to make a commitment as a state to high quality professional development for all educators, so that they stay current on educational standards, and build understanding about how to best deliver that content to students from different cultures and backgrounds, speaking different languages, or presenting special educational needs.  Our current systemic assumption that professional development is not essential to basic education is a flimsy belief that cannot be sustained as part of our plan for fulfilling the most basic rights of our students.

And finally, we need to be prepared to intervene early and often in a child’s life.  Systemically, we should align our belief systems about when the gaps begin and widen for students with our timelines for intervening with intensive and supplemental instructional opportunities.

The State Board of Education is extremely honored to have been tasked with this important responsibility.  We look forward to further discussion about how we can take some of the recommended reforms embedded in this report, and make them a reality for students.

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Building Additional Capabilities into the Washington Achievement Index

With each new school year, the State Board of Education is building additional capabilities into the Washington Achievement Index. This is a great tool for principals, staff, parents, and advocates. And now, more than ever before, you can understand the aggregate performance of a school as well as how particular subgroups of students are performing, based on race, income, and other factors.

Below are two examples of what you can do, but if you want to play with the tool yourself, go to and launch the Index interactive tool. Continue reading

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