In a newly released study, the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) reports that Houston-area school boards that mirror students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds do not gain an automatic edge in improving their districts’ benchmarks of academic achievement (such as standardized tests).
That result had not been expected. Researchers were surprised to find election of school board members who reflect their districts’ demographics – although a benefit for other reasons – turned out not to be a decisive step in improving test scores. In fact, researchers found no uptick in student scores in such districts.
Instead, the challenges inside communities and within families have far bigger effects on how well students perform on standardized tests, the CMAS analysis indicates. The report, titled “Diversity and School Boards,” also acknowledged achievement gaps persist between majority-minority and majority-white school districts in the Houston area.
“This is a big problem for a region as rich in culture and diversity as Houston,” said graduate research fellow Isaiah Johnson, one of the report’s authors.
For the full report, click “Diversity and School Boards: An Analysis of Race, Ethnicity and Geography in Greater Houston”
“It is the environmental indicators that are going to sway academic achievement. This is the study’s main point,” Johnson said. “As a society, we are not doing a good enough job for these students because we are not focusing on the social needs of the community and neighborhood.”
This was especially true in the study’s urban districts, where schools that serve diverse populations struggled the most with test scores. By contrast, the study’s suburban districts, which serve mostly white students, usually ranked highest in standardized testing.
The study cites poverty as one leading indicator, as well as standardized-test content that does not resonate with all students, the struggles of single-parent households, and school funding systems that favor suburban districts over schools in urban areas, where more minority students live.
“These findings are not news,” Johnson said. “What is news, is we have yet to find solutions. As a society, we must finally address these problems if we are to provide quality education for all students.”
In 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic brought further twists to the struggles. As classrooms went online, technology gaps threw up new barriers for low-income students. In addition, a surprising number of students, especially in struggling districts, went “missing.” Some students did not sign up for class or could not be found. Others were “unenrolling at massively large rates,” Johnson said.
Among the report’s suggested solutions are changes in state laws to support fair allocation of school funding and involvement of all school districts in the content of statewide standardized tests.
As the study concludes: “Until these environmental and local issues are dealt with at the district level, our results show that no matter how representative and professional the school board is, academic achievement gaps between majority-minority and majority-white school districts will persist.”
In reaching their conclusions, study authors examined 14 school districts in and around the Houston metro area. Those districts are a mix of urban, suburban and rural school systems that reflect a variety of demographics.
The researchers’ hope is this project will provide insight for governmental, educational and nonprofit professionals who seek to make needed changes in educational opportunities for all Houston area students.