JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Oxford is Mississippi's highest-flying school district, according to the state's rating system. But data published Thursday shows the district also has the widest achievement gap between black and white students, as well as between poor and more affluent students.
The district is not alone — some of Mississippi's most highly regarded districts have the broadest achievement gaps. On Thursday, the state Department of Education published numbers that detailed those divides in an easily accessible manner, part of a federal push to make sure high scores among students at large don't disguise problems in subgroups.
"In order to ensure that all students are proficient and showing growth and that every student is graduating from high school ready for college and career, we must begin addressing achievement gaps in Mississippi," state Superintendent Carey Wright said in a statement.
Statewide , African-American students run 29 percentage points behind white students in academic proficiency, while poor students trail richer ones by 27 percentage points. Students with disabilities trail those without by 25 percentage points. Those gaps are not limited to Mississippi, although state assessment director Walt Drane said they may be a little wider in the Magnolia State.
Among Mississippi districts, the achievement gap tends to be most severe in districts that serve a diverse mix of students, with some very high achievers. Even students on the wrong end of a divide in higher-performing districts can be scoring higher than students in lower-performing districts. On the other hand, gaps are narrow in some districts because all students are performing poorly.
"D and F districts, they're basically leaving everybody behind because they have no gaps," Drane said.
Attention has focused on Oxford's achievement gap in recent months, after school officials considered a separate, voluntary school for low-achieving students, modeled on similar schools in Virginia. Some community members interpreted that proposal to mean that affluent Oxford was going to build a school to segregate poor black students, prompting an uproar and leading the school system to quickly announce in September that it would stop looking at the idea.
The chasm is significantly wider in Oxford than statewide. Superintendent Brian Harvey said that despite September's controversy he's still focused on helping students who are black, poor, or have disabilities to score better, but needs help from outside the school.
"We have to change the culture in a positive way and start with the expectation that all communities can achieve," Harvey said.
Gulfport is another district with wide achievement gaps. There, Superintendent Glen East said the district has been trying to raise achievement among black male students. He hails the statewide focus on the question.
"I think it's very important data and I think our state needs to continue looking at that," East said.
Some high-performing districts have narrower gaps, though. Jackson County Curriculum Director Penny Westfaul said her district has worked to make sure lower performing students improved, which may have helped close gaps.
Mississippi's A-to-F school rating system rewards improvements among low-achievement students, which state Board of Education member Buddy Bailey, a Rankin County school administrator, said could help narrow divides statewide.
"If you're going to move the accountability model, you've got to move the subgroups," he said.