Hide scores or raise them?

May 23, 2014 

In Smithfield, town and school leaders might clash over how to make their high school better, but they agree on this much: Smithfield-Selma High School performs poorly on state-mandated tests in part because so many of its students come from high-poverty households.

To reverse the school’s academic course, some town leaders favor an approach endorsed by Elizabeth Haddix, a staff attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights. She argues that the Johnston County Board of Education should make SSS better by making it more affluent. The board can do this, she says, by redrawing attendance boundaries to balance the socioeconomic diversity at high-poverty SSS and low-poverty Cleveland High School, just 10 miles away.

At SSS, 66 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch; at Cleveland, just 27 percent of students do so. At Smithfield-Selma High, just 29 percent of students are white; at Cleveland, 65 percent are.

By simply redrawing attendance lines, Haddix argues, SSS would look more like Cleveland, where test scores are much higher. If Smithfield leaders want their high school to look more like Cleveland, then they should, by all means, lobby the board of education to redraw attendance lines.

But if Smithfield leaders want to help struggling students succeed in the classroom, they might want to divine a different approach. That’s because high-poverty students at Cleveland are no better than off than high-poverty students at SSS, trailing their affluent peers on state-mandated tests by a wide gap.

This past school year at Cleveland High, just 29.3 percent of economically disadvantaged students scored at or above grade level on state tests. Among students not economically disadvantaged, 48.5 percent scored at or above grade level. That’s a difference of 19.2 percentage points. At Smithfield-Selma High, the gap between poor and affluent students scoring at or above grade level was just 15.5 percentage points, though the overall passing rate was lower for both groups.

Simply put, even at higher-income schools, poor students still trail their affluent counterparts in the classroom. Moving students around won’t change that, though it will hide the low scores among the high ones.

By the way, Smithfield-Selma isn’t alone when it comes to poor students performing poorly. No matter the Johnston school, high-poverty students trail their affluent peers, often by wide margins. At Clayton High, for example, just 24.7 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed end-of-course tests last year. The passing rate was nearly 50 percent for more-affluent students.

This question then applies equally to leaders in all Johnston communities: Do they want their schools to be better or simply appear better? We hope we know the answer to that question.

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