Jul 25 2019

Positive Outliers: Understanding Extraordinary School Districts

Author 

The Learning Policy Institute Blog sat down with Anne Podolsky, the lead author of California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds, to explore the key findings of this groundbreaking study and to discuss the implications for local and state policymaking.

Q: The new report, California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds, provides insight into the California districts that are most successful at advancing the academic achievement of African American, Latino/a, and White students, as measured by standardized tests. Can you describe the study?

AP: There are two parts to our study. The first part examines which districts showed extraordinary achievement among African American, Latino/a, and White students, when accounting for their socioeconomic status. We measure achievement using the state’s new English language arts and mathematics assessments, which were first administered statewide during the 2014–15 school year. The second part analyzes factors associated with the success of these districts. 

We began the first part of our study by conducting an analysis to identify districts whose students consistently outperform peers of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds and from families of similar income and education levels in most other California districts. We call these districts “positive outliers.”

Q: Why does the study focus on just two of California’s many diverse student subgroups?

AP: Our analysis focused on the achievement of African American and Latino/a students both because prior research has found consistent gaps between those two student groups and White students and because both groups are of sufficient size to allow for a statistically stable analysis. Other important groups that have experienced achievement gaps, such as Native American students and Pacific Islander students, are too small in most districts to be able to include them in our analysis. Hopefully, future analyses will shed light on the trends in achievement of all of California’s students.

Q: Can you share a bit about the positive outlier districts?

AP: Because California districts have very different demographics, with some serving a large number of African American students and others serving mostly Latino/a students—and because these groups can have different outcomes—we looked at the results separately between students in these racial and ethnic groups. We found that approximately 167 California districts have had Latino/a and White students consistently achieve at higher levels than their peers statewide. (See Figure 1 and Table 1.) This list includes elementary school districts, high school districts, and unified school districts. Among this 167, the small elementary districts of Little Lake Elementary, Magnolia Elementary, Newhall, and Winton are highest performing for both Latino/a and White students. Hawthorne and Palo Verde Union elementary districts are high-performing for Latinos/as. Latino/a and White students in the larger unified school districts of Long Beach and San Diego also perform better than peers statewide on California’s standardized tests.

 

List of Top 5 Positive Outlier Districts for Latino/a Students

As presented in Figure 1. See the complete table in the brief.

  1. Newhall
  2. Hawthorne
  3. Winton
  4. Palo Verde Union Elementary
  5. La Canada Unified

Data sources: California Department of Education. (n.d.). California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) results. https://caaspp.cde.ca.gov (accessed 01/05/18); National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Education demographic and geographic estimates. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/edge (accessed 01/05/18).



In comparison, because California has a much smaller number of African American students than Latino/a students, we identified just 48 districts of significant size in which both African American and White students achieve at higher levels than their statewide peers. (See Figure 2 and Table 2.) The Chula Vista Elementary School District is at the top of this list. (The district also made the positive outlier list for Latino/a and White students.) San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified are the largest districts in which both African American and White students outperformed their peers statewide.

 

List of Top 5 Positive Outlier Districts for African American Students

As presented in Figure 2. See the complete table in the brief.

  1. Chula Vista Elementary
  2. Perris Elementary
  3. Etiwanda Elementary
  4. Alvord Unified
  5. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified

Data sources: California Department of Education. (n.d.). California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) results. https://caaspp.cde.ca.gov (accessed 01/05/18); National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Education demographic and geographic estimates. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/edge (accessed 01/05/18).



Q: You mentioned that there are two parts to your study. What were you analyzing in Part 2, and what were your key findings?

AP: The second part of our study went back to the original sample of districts with at least 200 African American or Latino/a students and at least 200 White students. The purpose of this analysis was to better understand the district characteristics that are most strongly associated with higher student achievement on the state’s standardized tests when accounting for the socioeconomic conditions for each racial and ethnic group in each district.

What we found is that the most significant in-school factor is the preparedness of teachers. Specifically, the percent of teachers holding substandard credentials, such as emergency-type permits, waivers, or intern credentials, is associated with decreased achievement. For example, in the districts we analyzed, every 10% increase in the percentage of teachers with a permit, waiver, or intern credential is associated with a decrease in achievement for students of color of, on average, approximately 0.10 standard deviations—that’s roughly the equivalent of having one less month of schooling in math or English language arts. In addition, students of color had significantly stronger achievement when their teachers had more experience on average.

Q: What’s new and groundbreaking about this study?

AP: Our study is among the first in California to identify districts in which students are doing extraordinarily well on the state’s new test, which measures higher-order thinking and performance skills much more fully than previous state tests. It also adds important context by accounting for the socioeconomic conditions of students’ families. This allows us to more truly compare students with those from similar backgrounds.

Q: What are the implications of these findings for local and state policymakers?

 AP: Our research suggests that policymakers might track the proportion of teachers with substandard credentials as an indicator of the teaching and learning conditions within a school or district. Policymakers might also focus on building and retaining a prepared and experienced teaching workforce, especially in districts serving students who have been historically underserved. Other research finds that effective ways to find and keep teachers at scale include improving teachers’ preparation, compensation, early career support, and working conditions.

Anne Podolsky, LPI Researcher and Policy Analyst