On July 10, educators from across the region gathered at the University of Redlands for the 14th annual Summer Institute on Leadership for Educational Justice. Joseph Cimpian, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University, presented the keynote address on “How Data Can Inform—and Misinform—Policies and Practices Concerning Equity.”
“In the current moment, I could not be more excited to have a conversation about education today that talks about facts, empirical evidence, and the importance of discussing that evidence,” said U of R School of Education Dean Andrew Wall during his welcome. “We face grand challenges.”
Cimpian’s talk focused on research in three areas of education: English learners, gender achievement gaps, and LGBTQ youth.
Cimpian first addressed issues in the process of reclassifying English-language learners, which school districts use to determine whether or not an English learner is proficient enough in the language to be reclassified as a fluent. Being reclassified introduces a host of changes to a student’s educational experience, specifically changes in programs and courses and often new teachers and peers.
“Do our current policies and processes of reclassification help or hinder students?” Cimpian asked. “Often, English learners can remain in their position for years without being reclassified. The policymakers who create the tests for English learners face a dilemma: if the threshold for reclassification is too low, the test may be too easy and students are more likely to struggle with English later on. If the test is too difficult, students can remain English learners for too long.”
In 2007, the California Department of Education rescaled the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which is used to assess a student’s proficiency in English, to be more difficult. Based on data collected in the years after the new version of the test was implemented, high school students reclassified as fluent English speakers in the Los Angeles Unified School District were 9 percent more likely to graduate.
Even though the revision of the CELDT produced positive results, Cimpian reminded the audience: “Reclassification depends on context—it’s not all good or all bad.”
Cimpian went on to explore the gender gap in education (a topic of his recent Brookings Center article). Through his research, he found that a gender gap favoring boys in math develops in early elementary school, even though this gap is nearly nonexistent in state test results.
His research also found that women aren’t avoiding the math and science fields because those fields are difficult. Rather, women tend to enter fields where they will experience less discrimination, and studies have shown that women tend to be discriminated against in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
“Be aware of your own potential bias against girls,” Cimpian urged the educators. “Don’t think all is well when girls are outperforming boys in subjects, especially math. Make sure to encourage creative problem solving with female students.”
Finally, Cimpian turned to the topic of research on LGBTQ students. Here, he urged caution, as data can often be invalid. Cimpian introduced the concept of the “mischievous responder,” a student who provides false information in an anonymous survey. Researchers often don’t know if kids are telling the truth, and most studies don’t have a clear way to assess this problem.
Because if this issue, valid data and other research on LGBTQ students isn’t available to policymakers. “Robust research is crucial for this student group,” said Cimpian. “Survey data is invaluable, especially in invisible or underserved populations. We need to try to correct this inequity.”
Other topics addressed during this year’s conference included homeless youth, Vietnamese dual language immersion, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students. In addition, a forum facilitated a discussion among superintendents, including Judy White of Riverside County, Ted Alejandre of San Bernardino County, Mauricio Arellano of Redlands Unified School District, Jerry Almendarez of Colton Unified School District, Martinrex Kedziora of Moreno Valley Unified School District, and Michael Lin of Corona-Norco Unified School District.