Is Seattle Public Schools putting money on its promise to close the opportunity gap?

Seattle Public Schools released its annual Report Card a few weeks ago, with bad news about a central part of their mission – closing opportunity gaps in the district. As reported by the Times “[p]assing algebra by the end of eighth grade is traditionally viewed as an early indicator of college readiness. But Seattle is losing ground on this important benchmark. And when examined group by group, the numbers become even starker. Only 18 percent of black eighth-graders had completed algebra last June, a decline of 6 percentage points from 2014. White students, while lagging a bit on this measure, still show 58 percent passing algebra by the end of eighth grade.”

SPS District Scorecard Board Presentation

I spent four years teaching middle school math to students who were almost all represented by the small orange bars on this chart, and worked hard to understand and attempt to fight the structural barriers and racism that faced those students as they tried to pass Algebra. This news hit me hard, and I wanted to understand why a progressive and prosperous district like Seattle was failing to close the gap. I’m in a class at the College of Education at the University of Washington about school finance, so the first question that came to my mind was “where’s the money?” Perhaps this gap has persisted because SPS is failing to ‘put money where their goals are’ in terms of student achievement. I started downloading Excel data files from the WA OSPI website to try and find out.

Allocating resources with equity in mind

Seattle is unique in the state of Washington in that it allocates money to schools based on the characteristics of the students in the school, as opposed to the more traditional per staff model. As stated in their 2017-18 budget report, they consider this a ‘priority-based’ budgeting process that should align resources to the strategic goals they set. The district “allocates budget and staff to schools based on the number of students and their characteristics. The formula used for school allocations is called the Weighted Staffing Standards (WSS) model. The WSS model uses projected enrollment numbers to determine the instructional staff levels needed for each school to provide the necessary services for its students. The model also allocates non-instructional staff such as administrators, office staff, counselors and librarians and discretionary funds.”

Their budget report shows in detail the amount of money the WSS allocates to schools, and they even help break down why schools with similar numbers of students would be budgeted for differing amounts. I was left curious, however about what was actually spent. The only ‘per building’ expenditure data available to download is the total salary information for certificated staff members at schools. This salary spending can be used as a good indicator of equitable funding, considering that salary, insurance, and benefits spending accounts for more than 70% of total expenditures at the school level. I broke the salary data down by grade and FTE assignment, and calculated a per pupil salary spending amount by dividing by the total number of 6th-8th graders in the school.

Where are the 6th-8th graders in SPS who identify as black? How do their test results compare?

Using enrollment data I found 1,731 of 10,699 6-8th graders enrolled in SPS for school year 2015-16 identify as black. 65% of these students attend 5 of 21 middle or K-8 schools in the district. All five are south of downtown or in West Seattle, which makes sense considering Seattle’s demographics, and are the larger more traditional middle schools in the SPS system. They are also higher in the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.  

Description of Seattle schools with the most and least black 6th-8th graders

Then I dug into the Smarter Balanced Assessment data to find measures of student achievement in math. OSPI intends to report on Algebra completion rates, but this information isn’t yet publically available. I found the percentage of students who met the SBA standard (that means they scored a ‘basic’, level 3, or level 4), the percentage who got a Level 4, and the percentage that got a Level 1 averaged across grades 6, 7, and 8. There were significant gaps in this data, as OSPI suppresses the results for small student groups at the schools so as not to potentially reveal personal information. Just as the SPS report said, I found that the black student group had consistently lower scores than the average for all groups, and significantly lower scores than the white student group. This held true in both the schools with a larger proportion of black middle schoolers, and those schools with very few black students.  

2015-16 Math SBA results by school and student sub-group

In the top 5 schools for black enrollment, the black student group average tended to be at or above the average for the district, though still far behind the other student groups.

Spending and student results – is there a connection?

After pulling together the demographic, financial, and student test score data, I went looking for a relationship between what SPS pays its certificated staff and the scores for students in those buildings. Does the district spend less in schools with more black students? As the figure below shows, there was actually very little relationship between the percentage of black students and the per pupil salary spending at the school. If anything, there was a slightly positive correlation which would indicate that the WSS was succeeding in sending more money to those schools serving a higher proportion of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Per Pupil Salary Spending by the % of students who identify as black

I graphed the student group results against the per pupil salary spending to try and observe any other relationship. As shown below, student performance on the SBA seems unrelated to growth in per pupil spending, which is consistent with national research on student spending as it relates to student achievement.

What held true across per pupil spending amounts was black students performing lower as a group than white students.

Interestingly, when comparing the percentage of students who got a Level 4 and Level 1, we can see a slightly negative relationship between per pupil spending and test scores. This again may indicate that the SPS WSS strategy is getting dollars where students are struggling.

It’s important to remember that there is a lot missing from this picture, like the other 30% or so of school spending on programs, supplies, and extracurricular activities. It also has no measure for the small but important difference PTA funds may make. Also, test scores are not a perfect measure of student achievement, but they do give us a window into the persistent structural barriers that our students face in their math classrooms. From my quick math, though, it does seem like SPS is putting their money where their goals are, even if that goes to show that there is still a lot more work to do.