Low-income and minority students who spend their whole academic career in Madison aren't performing appreciably better on state tests than similar students who started here later, according to a new analysis by district officials.
The findings elaborate on similar data released last fall that showed students who had spent more years in the district performed better on state tests in eighth grade.
The data showed the same result overall, but found new students are disproportionately low-income or minorities. Comparing students in similar racial and income groups, the district found time spent in the district did not explain the difference in test results.
The new district analysis challenges Mayor Paul Soglin's focus in recent months on students moving to Madison from larger cities such as Milwaukee and Chicago. Soglin has called for alternative programs specifically geared toward new students to help improve low-income and minority student achievement.
"The practical fact is that mobility and newness are things we take into consideration, but when we plan how we're going to address learning needs, they're not the most important factors," Superintendent Jane Belmore said.
The new analysis is important because "these sorts of things drive policy decisions and curricular decisions and spending decisions," said Jim Zellmer, a local education blogger who follows education issues closely.
Belmore said the district still plans to employ strategies to help new students acclimate, such as special back-to-school events in the fall, but the district doesn't plan to create specific programs that would offer different services for new students.
Soglin was undeterred, saying the district should still develop more intensive programs for new students. He acknowledged that struggling students who aren't new to the district could also benefit from alternative offerings.
"There is an achievement gap here in Madison," Soglin said. "It exists for all students, regardless of where they enter the Madison schools. There is a profound and significant difference based on time in the district, and I believe it's sufficient enough to merit attention."
Officials with the United Way of Dane County said last fall they were considering programs targeted at new students based on data Soglin had obtained from the district.
Kathy Hubbard, director of community impact for the United Way, said she agrees with district officials that race and socioeconomic status are a stronger indicator of performance than time in the district.
"We're thrilled that the district is digging into this data further," Hubbard said. "A better understanding of the subtleties will help us modify and be more effective with our strategies."
Comparing students based on their race or socioeconomic status, the analysis found fourth-graders who spent more time in the district had better math scores. But in looking at fourth grade reading, and eighth and 10th grade reading and math scores, "the effects of additional years in (Madison schools) on WKCE are largely ambiguous," according to the study.
"Based on these findings, (the school district) may be better served by refining its core curriculum to meet students' needs based on demographic characteristics rather than the recency of their arrival," district chief information officer Andrew Statz concluded in a memo to the School Board.