Pa. provides some of the worst opportunities for students of color, reports say

Research for Action and the Education Trust reached the same conclusions after analyzing federal civil rights data

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Students of color in Pennsylvania are far less likely than their white peers to have access to small classes, certified teachers and advanced coursework, according to a pair of new studies.

The so-called “access” gap in Pennsylvania is among the nation’s largest, both studies claim, distinguishing the Keystone state as one of the America’s worst when it comes to educational equity for poor and non-white students.

The findings come from two research projects released this month, both of which use a data set released by the federal government in 2018.

This week, Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action unveiled an “Educational Opportunity Dashboard” that looks at high school students across the country and tries to determine whether they attend schools with quality educators, good school climate and challenging curriculum. From those three categories, RFA generated an “average opportunity score” for each state — a composite of factors such as student-teacher ratio, suspension rate, absenteeism rate, teacher experience and access to Advanced Placement classes.

Pennsylvania’s “average opportunity score” for high school students of color ranked 48th nationally, meaning RFA found a significantly larger-than-normal gap between the opportunities granted to white students and the opportunities granted to students of color.

Pennsylvania was 47th overall in the opportunity gap between black and white students, 47th in the gap between Hispanic and white students and 46th in the gap between economically disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers.

RFA attributed these disparities to enrollment patterns in Pennsylvania. In a research brief, analysts said students of color in Pennsylvania are disproportionately clustered in “high poverty schools” that “provide less access to educational opportunities.”

A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has some of the starkest racial and socioeconomic divides among its school districts, of which there are 500. Another study concluded that the state’s system for funding education has systemic racial bias that particularly hurts Black and Hispanic students in poverty.

“Few states provide so much opportunity to their White students and yet so little for their Black and Hispanic students,” RFA researchers wrote. “Few states provide so much less to their poor students compared to their non-poor students.”

While the gap between white and non-white students in Pennsylvania was abnormally large, RFA analysts found that, overall, Pennsylvania students had relatively ample access to educational opportunities.

The state ranked 15th in “overall access to educational opportunities” for students of all races. And even though Black and Hispanic students lagged far behind white students in the Keystone state, they only ranked slightly below-average nationally in their overall access to key measures of educational opportunity.

‘At or near the bottom’

Earlier this month, the national nonprofit EdTrust — which is headed by former U.S. Secretary of Education John King — released a report that examined whether students of color took advanced classes at the same rate as white students.

Again, Pennsylvania lagged well behind the national average.

Stacked up against other states, Pennsylvania was “at or near the bottom” in terms of the representation of Black and Latinx students in elementary gifted and talented classes, eighth-grade algebra courses, and Advanced Placement classes, according to EdTrust.

EdTrust analyst Kayla Patrick, said states like Pennsylvania need to improve access to advanced courses and scrutinize the way districts screen students for placement in gifted classes.

“The first question that you should ask is what kind of measures are being used to identify students for advanced course work,” Patrick said.

She recommended Pennsylvania require districts to screen all students for potential placement in gifted classes, rather than relying on recommendations from teachers or parent requests.

Pennsylvania wasn’t the only state in the region to score poorly on these metrics of educational inequity.

New Jersey (43rd), Ohio (45th) and New York (50th) also ranked at or near the bottom on RFA’s “average opportunity score” metric when looking at the gap between white students and students of color. A similar picture emerged when sorting students by income, with New Jersey (47th), Ohio (34th) and New York (48th) all posting lower-than-average opportunity scores.

Compared to their regional counterparts, Delaware (13th), Maryland (28th) and West Virginia (4th) posted better “average opportunity scores” for students of color.