By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
It’s been 14 years since the Pittsburgh Public Schools entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission aimed at narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students, but little progress has been made and there remains “an extreme performance differential between black and white students.”
That’s the conclusion from an October 2020 Memorandum of Understanding Report issued recently by the PHRC. The report measures the achievement gaps between black and white students from 2015 to 2020 and is a follow-up of similar reports from past years.
In addition to academics, the October report analyzes the racial differentials between black and white students in suspensions, AP enrollment, AP exam scores, disability and gifted designations and the number of students who are removed from magnet school designations. It also looks at the international baccalaureate successes at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12.
The achievement gaps in the report are measured by students’ proficiency rates on the Pennsylvania System of School Achievement tests in English language arts and math in grades 3,5 and 8 and in science in grade 8 and on the Keystone exams taken by 11th grade in English language arts, Algebra I and Biology.
Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, the report includes no test proficiency scores for 2020. State tests could not be administered last spring when students were learning remotely.
The widest gap in 2018-19 was in grade 8 math where just 9.3 percent of black students scored proficient in math and the percentage differential in proficiency between black and white students was nearly 122 percent, the report showed.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s traumatic,” said Wanda Henderson, a member of the district’s Equity Advisory Panel and an original member of the Advocates for African American Students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“This data is prior to COVID. Imagine what it is going to be next year. Now we don’t only have a coronavirus pandemic, we have a racial equity pandemic,” Henderson said.
District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh did not respond to a request for comment from district officials on the report.
On the PSSAs, the achievement gap between black and white students widened in every grade level with the exception of third-grade math where it was reduced from a percentile difference between black and white students of 91 percent to about 64 percent.
On the Keystone Exams, the gap widened in all three subjects.
While suspensions of 1-3 days of black students were down, so were those of white students, making the percentage differential increase from 99 percent to 104 percent.
The news is better regarding 4-10-day suspensions. The percent of black students receiving the longer-term suspensions decreased from 3 percent to 2 percent while the number given to white students essentially held steady at about 0.6 percent. The percent differential decreased from 133 percent to about 108 percent.
The report notes the “gap between white and African American students remains extremely high.”
When it comes to enrollment in gifted programs, black students are underrepresented. The same holds true for the successful completion of the International Baccalaureate program at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12. The Obama results come despite the fact that there are 500 more black students than white students in the school.
Of students who took advanced placement exams in 2018-19, 8.4 percent of black students passed compared with nearly 50 percent of white students.
Black students are also more often removed from magnet programs for attendance, disciplinary or academic issues than white students and are more often labeled as needing social and emotional support, the report found.
The MOU referred to in the report expired in August. Henderson said the parties involved are negotiating a new MOU and her advocacy group is demanding that specific metrics are set as goals in the new memorandum.
She said the district includes language about narrowing the achievement gap and erasing disparities in programs and discipline in its documents, but specific goals are never included.
“They produce beautiful documents. But they don’t implement anything. We have a nice piece of paper, but that’s all we have,” Henderson said.
The recent MOU is the result of a protest that started in 1992 when Henderson and other members of the Advocates for African American Students protested the hiring of Louise Brennan, who was white, as the district’s new superintendent, over a black candidate the group said was more qualified.
At the time, Henderson’s children were students in the district. Now she has grandchildren in the district.
The advocates filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission against the district, citing racial inequities in academics, discipline and resources.
Though the commission found evidence of what the advocates contended, the complaint was eventually dismissed because the commission ruled that only the candidate who was passed over had standing to file it.
But some of the advocates, including Henderson, continued to push the district on the issues. In September 2006, the PHRC and the district entered into a conciliation agreement that included more than 90 terms the district was to enact in order to close the racial achievement gap, reduce the disparity in suspensions and establish an equity office and hire a full-time equity administrator
The agreement also established an Equity Advisory Panel (EAP) to work with the equity office and it authorized the PHRC to monitor the district’s progress over the next five years. It called for the district to make “substantial progress” in removing disparities between black and white students.
After a review in 2012, the PHRC found the district did not make substantial progress and as a result, the district, the PHRC, and the EAP agreed to a memorandum of understanding that extended monitoring for two additional years. But again, no substantial progress was made. A new five-year MOU was agreed upon in October 2015.
Details in the PHRC October report are grim and show that academic achievement among black students has not made substantial increases and in some cases has seen decreases. As a result, the achievement gap between white and black students is widening across the board with few exceptions.
The grade 3 English Language Arts proficiency rate of about 39 percent in 2018-2019 was up slightly from four years ago. But since white students also saw an increase, the percentage difference between the groups sat at 65 in 2018-19.
In grade 5, ELA proficiency rates dropped then returned to nearly the same level — 31 percent — that they were in 2015-16. The percentage differential between blacks and whites if fifth grade was 81 percent in 2018-19.
In grade 8, ELA proficiency rose to about 46 percent in 2017-2018 but then dropped significantly to about 29 percent the next year. The percent difference between the races rose from 63 to 82 percent in the four-year span.
On the Keystone ELA exams there was a consistent decrease in proficiency rates from about 57 percent to 43 percent. The percent differential between the races increased from 37 to 58.
Third-grade math showed improvement in proficiency from 22 percent in 2015-16 to 33 percent 2018-19, narrowing the percentage differential from 91 percent to 64 percent.
“The increase obviously represents a terrific success. But because the children began at such a low starting point, this performance would need to be continued to being to reasonably narrow the achievement differential in this area. But it is a great start!” the report stated.
However, math scores in grades 5 and 8 remain dismally low in 2018-19 with about 15 percent of black students scoring proficient in fifth grade and slightly more than 9 percent in eighth grade. The percentage differentials in both grades are astounding at 112 percent for fifth grade and 122 percent in eighth grade.
Keystone scores for black students in Algebra increased from 32 percent in 2015-16 to nearly 47 percent in 2017-2018, but then dropped to about 31 percent in 2018-19. The percentage differential between black and white students was 80 percent in 2018-19.
In science, the proficiency rate for black eighth-grade students in 2018-19 dropped from 22 percent to about 19 percent, with a race percentage differential of 95. On the Keystone biology exam proficiency for black students dropped from 23 percent to 20 percent and an increase in the percent differential between the races was from 91 to 107.
“A review of this data strongly suggests that not only have(sic) the achievement gap remained in these core subjects, there are many instances where the percentage differential has become greater,” the report said.
Henderson said she holds the school board responsible for the lack of progress.
“This complaint is with the board of directors, not the administration. Regardless of who they hire, they are responsible to make them educate all children,” Henderson said. “Nobody wants to deal with the systemic racism in the school district.”