Should struggling students have a say in how they’re taught?

Establishing pupil focus groups was one idea discussed by Santa Monica-Malibu school district officials this month as they analyzed data from recently released state test results amid ongoing efforts to close longstanding achievement gaps.

Debate during the local Board of Education’s meeting on Sept. 17 followed a presentation by Evan Bartelheim, the district’s research director, on how SMMUSD students fared on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress exams.

The new tests are administered to students in grades 3-8 and 11, and they are aligned with Common Core standards. They were designed to examine students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

About 68 percent of SMMUSD students who took the new tests met or exceeded standards in English and 57 percent met or exceeded standards for math, according to state data. Those numbers compare favorably to the 44 percent of California students who met or exceeded English standards and the 34 percent who met or exceeded math standards.

But pass rates in the district varied dramatically across racial lines. In English, they ranged from 45 percent for African-American students and 48 percent for Hispanic students to 78 percent for white students and 83 percent for Asians. Similarly, just 30 percent of black SMMUSD test-takers and 33 percent of Latino students met or exceeded standards in math, while white and Asian students’ rates jumped to 69 percent and 77 percent, respectively.

Board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein said it might be beneficial for educators to open a dialogue with students who excelled on the state tests, as well as with students who struggled.

“I’m wondering if we have any pockets of success that we can identify … [and] that can be replicated,” he said. “Do we think there’s any benefit to asking a child what works and what doesn’t work? Is there a way for us to engage a child at the middle school and high school level … where we can benefit from that qualitative data?

“Is it possible to have a conversation with the children who are not performing and ask them what’s going on? I want to reach out … and have a direct conversation. …¬† ‘This is what’s going on with me. This is why I feel like I’m not succeeding.'”

Superintendent Sandra Lyon said learning preferences don’t necessarily affect achievement. She added that student focus groups yielded mixed results in a district where she previously worked.

“It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to get qualitative pieces about that,” she said. “Is it doable? Yes. It can be valuable, and it can also lead to a lot more questions.”

Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent for educational services, said student focus groups were conducted in her former district as well. Pupils often blamed themselves for their shortcomings, she said.

“The older they are,” she said, “the more convinced they are that they can’t do the math or they can’t write. … They think they can’t do it. Rarely do they blame the teacher. Rarely do they say it’s because of the material.”

Educator and sociologist Pedro Noguera, who was hired by the district to address achievement gaps, wants SMMUSD officials to analyze “bright spots” among minority groups, Deloria said. She added that district leaders will meet with administrators, counselors and teachers in the coming months to study and develop strategies to help underperforming students.

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