11-28-2023  9:23 am   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Michelle DePass
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 28 September 2023

Portland Public Schools announced last week that the city's students were doing better than their counterparts elsewhere in the state. But those gains are not equally distributed. 

Schools nationwide are grappling with post-pandemic declines in student performance, attributed largely to the abrupt interruption to in-person schooling and the accompanying social and emotional challenges. The release of the 2022-2023 Oregon Statewide Assessment scores showed minimal growth in test scores among Portland public school students – but not backsliding, PPS representatives were quick to point out – in math for grades 3 through 8.

guerrero guadalupe 2023 introGuadalupe Guerrero“As a school system, we have continued to demonstrate incremental growth on statewide assessments,” Guadalupe Guerrero, superintendent of PPS, said during a press conference last week. “Our students improved from last year in both math and English language arts. And as a comparison, we out performed other Oregon districts across all grades by more than 10% in both English language arts and math.”

This muted good news was presented in contrast to test scores from the rest of the state: PPS students “outpaced other Oregon students by over 10% at all English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics grade levels and showed year-over-year growth,” PPS reported.

“Our youngest learners began working with new math curricula in the fall of 2021, and 6th through 12th graders began using new math curricula in the fall of 2022,” Guerrero said. “In addition, we adopted a new English language arts curriculum for all grades this past fall.”

But Black education advocates received the news differently. 

PPS pointed out growth in mathematics achievement was consistent among special education students and students of color in grades 3 to 5. Black students, however, had the lowest change in scores, showing just below 2% improvement. 

“There’s hardly a district in the country that does not have an achievement gap for Black kids,” Michelle DePass, director of the PPS board of education, told The Skanner. “It’s structural and institutional. 

“I’m from this district and sent my kids to the district, and I’m noticing a persistent gap.

"It almost doesn’t matter who’s in charge, though I think our superintendent is doing an amazing job and we’re starting to see the needle move in some areas – but it’s not system-wide yet.” 

According to the PPS report, Sitton and Whitman elementary schools showed double-digit improvements in English language arts proficiency, while Richmond, Sitton, Buckman and Lent elementary schools demonstrated similar gains in math proficiency.

“We’re trying to learn where the levers are that they’ve employed,” DePass said of the schools.

DePass recently completed a two-year fellowship with School Board Partners, which advocates for anti-racist approaches in education, rather than the more nebulous definition of schools being “equity-focused.”

It is a distinction favored by Keyonia Williams, an adjunct professor at Portland State University's School of Social Work and a mental health professional who works as an educational consultant.

While Guerrero spoke of newly added wraparound services to meet students' social and emotional needs, Williams has seen firsthand how such programming can fall far short of serving the Black families she works with.

“There’s lots of initiatives in Portland and various arenas, saying there’s additional support and resources to advocate for Black families and Black children, but quite frankly it’s all performative at this point,” Williams told The Skanner.

“I haven’t seen any real change.” 

She added that true equity depends on hiring Black teachers and school staff. 

“We know that studies show that children will fare better if they are in situations with teachers that look like them and can relate to them,” Williams, who enjoyed being taught by Black educators all throughout her academic career in New Jersey, said. “The predominately White teachers (in PPS) do not have the understanding, and do not have the training, for working with Black children and families – you have to understand the intricacies of racism and oppression and anti-blackness.

“If you’re going to say that you want to be equitable, for one, are you hiring Black staff?

"Are you recruiting Black staff, are you also putting resources into retaining Black staff?”

Williams also took issue with the lack of Black representation in educational materials used by PPS. 

“Also, you have White folks making these decisions” about how best to serve Black students. “You can’t be a White person making those decisions; you don’t actually know what we need.”

DePass echoed the need for diversity and representation in educators. Reflecting on the standardized test achievement gap for Black students, she said, “I think about this all the time – I have a test I could give to White people that I’m guessing maybe 20% of the people would pass, but 80% would not, because (they wouldn’t understand) the cultural references. The people that are writing the tests aren’t Black folks. Of course Black kids aren’t going to do well.” 

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