Indiana’s most vulnerable students have far lower passing rates than their peers on the state’s ISTEP exams — and the gaps are widening even as scores overall remain steady.

Only half of the state’s elementary and middle school students passed both English and math exams in 2018, but the results released Wednesday were worse for students of color. For example, about a quarter of black students in the lower grades earned passing scores on both tests, compared to nearly 60 percent of white students.

The gaps in passing rates were also more than 30 percentage points between general education and special needs students, as well as students from affluent and low-income families. And with the exception of special education students in grades 3-8, and Native American students in grade 10, these gaps have increased by several percentage points since 2015 and 2016.

“The gaps are already big, and so we need to be shrinking those, not increasing them,” said Laura Hamilton, associate director at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization that conducts research and analyzes data on public policy issues. “If you are seeing increases, even if they are small, it suggests a need to kind of take a closer look at what’s going on.”

The Indiana State Board of Education gave the go-ahead to release the passing rates Wednesday, after a month-long delay due to scoring issues with Pearson, the company that administers the exam. This will be the last year all Indiana students will take ISTEP, a four-year-old test designed to reflect the state’s tougher standards. Scores overall haven’t improved dramatically since the updated test was given for the first time in 2015, when they fell significantly for nearly every school in the state.

Find your schools’ 2018 ISTEP results here

This year’s results were particularly bad for many students of color and those with more intensive needs. While fewer students in grades 3-8 across the board passed both exams in 2018 than in 2015, students of color, students from low-income families, and English-learners have collectively lost more ground compared to their peers.

In high school, about one-third of students overall passed, with passing rates inching up across the board since 10th-graders began taking the test in 2016. But populations of more vulnerable students haven’t improved as much or as quickly, leading to growing gaps.

“There’s no good news in this,” said Mark Russell, director of education and advocacy for the Indianapolis Urban League. “The supreme irony here is you could be an A-rated (district) … but you could still have achievement gaps for those various categories.”

Experts caution that differences in test scores between groups of students, often called achievement or opportunity gaps, don’t reflect students’ innate abilities to learn. Nor do they always mean schools are doing a poor job educating different students. Rather, gaps can be attributed to any number of factors, including test question biases, parents’ education, students’ early childhood education, stress, trauma, and more.

What gaps in passing rates might highlight, are possible areas of inequities between students, such as differences in teacher quality, curriculum quality, and availability of honors courses. The gaps can also show the extent to which income and poverty are present in a district. Students who come from low-income families and those who switch schools frequently tend to do worse on standardized exams.

“Every single one of those numbers reflects a student, and every single one has a story,” said Jeff Butts, superintendent in Wayne Township, where the majority of students come from low-income families. “Depending on what that story is, our job is to, in the classroom, start off with the teacher and figure out what that story is … figure out where gaps exist, why gaps exist, and what supports need to be put in place … so that we can help them overcome those gaps.”

Some advocates believe the key to closing these gaps is for the federal government to hold states more accountable. Russell, with the Urban League, pointed to the Every Student Succeeds Act, new federal law that was designed to ensure students from all backgrounds are on equal footing when it comes to education.

Part of the state’s responsibility under the law, he said, is to make sure schools have the resources they need to close achievement gaps, among other things. Indiana’s plan to comply with the law has already been criticized by some advocates for not factoring the achievement of students of colors and those with more intensive education needs into school grades.

“I’m a bit mystified as to how to address this, both in the short- and long-term,” Russell said. “But definitely we need to raise public awareness. It’s actually a crisis.”

Districts that have more students from low-income families tend to have smaller gaps between groups of students, but students are largely not passing state tests. This category includes districts such as Wayne Township, Beech Grove Schools, and Indianapolis Public Schools.

In districts where there’s a much wider income distribution, such as in Washington Township, Perry Township, and Lawrence Township, there are more gaps and they tend to be larger.

The widest gaps between white students and students of color in the county is in Washington Township. In 2018, almost 74 percent of white students in grades three to eight passed both exams, while just 25 percent of black students did — a gap of nearly 49 percentage points. Almost two-thirds of upper- and middle-income students passed, while 27 percent of low-income ones did, a gap of about 40 percentage points.

Washington Township did not make administrators available for an interview and did not answer questions about how they were addressing their racial and income-related achievement gaps. Instead, they said in an emailed statement that there is a lot of student improvement that isn’t reflected in ISTEP passing rates.

Troy Knoderer, the chief academic officer for Lawrence Township, said his district, too, looks at other data to determine whether all students are being served, including data on test score improvement, called growth, that won’t be released until state letter grades are made public later this fall. The district is also focusing on improving dual language programs for English-learners at more schools, and focusing more on instruction and teaching to state standards.

“The research is really clear that dual language programs … where students are taught in their first language, that second language comes along more quickly,” Knoderer said. “That’s where we’re seeing the strong (English proficiency) growth. That tells us we’re on the right path, and we’ve got to continue to grow that program through the years.”

Like Washington Township, Lawrence has also seen major gaps between students from certain racial and ethnic groups and those from differing income levels. White students in Lawrence are passing by a margin of about 40 percentage points compared to black and Hispanic students, while English-learners and students from low-income families are behind their peers by about 30 percentage points, across grade levels.

Knoderer said the district is dichotomous when it comes to income level, potentially leading to gaps in test scores. Lawrences ranges from a quarter of students qualifying for free lunch to areas with 80 to 90 percent of students qualifying.

“The north half of our district is really more of a Hamilton County kind of socioeconomically, and the south side of our district is more of a Center Township,” he said.

To meet those students’ needs, Lawrence is partnering with Communities In Schools, an organization that helps schools across the state provide wraparound supports for students.

It’s important to look at data at the school level, Hamilton said, whether that’s looking at possible solutions or what data to draw conclusions from. Actual scores, versus passing rates, can reveal a lot more about how students are doing even if they aren’t passing the test. That data is not publicly available for student privacy reasons, but is available to schools and it is often more reliable, she said.

If students do make progress next year, it might be hard to see because elementary and middle school students will take a new exam, ILEARN, that won’t necessarily be comparable to ISTEP, state education officials said. Testing experts have told Chalkbeat that it is not uncommon to see scores rebound after new tests became more familiar for students and teachers, but that didn’t happen with ISTEP — is there a chance the next test will see a change?

Read: Shorter, faster, smarter: How officials say Indiana’s new ILEARN test could differ from ISTEP

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s schools chief, said the state is aware of the gaps and hopes some of the new features of ILEARN — language support for students who speak Spanish and several other languages, a careful process to avoid bias in test questions — can help in the future.

“In terms of achievement gaps, we have seen them widen slightly over the past year and so this is something we will continue to work toward closing,” McCormick, who announced Monday she wouldn’t seek re-election, said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor student performance of all students and within populations to ensure success can be achieved by all students as we transition to ILEARN.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Mark Russell’s title. He is the director of education and advocacy for the Indianapolis Urban League.