Valley Forum: A look at the Sonoma Valley school district’s widening achievement gap

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Read the Report

To read Jacquelyn Torres' full survey report, click here.

I have a question for you: What does a typical AP or honors class look like at Sonoma Valley High School? And what does the factor of diversity play? Have you ever set foot in one of these classrooms?

I cannot stress how essential it is to witness the achievement gap in action. The achievement gap refers not only to test scores and expulsions, but rather a substantial phenomenon that takes place every single day in a regular school day.

Even since I abandoned the special education program and began taking a rigorous course load, I began to notice the lack of special education and minority students in my courses. For example: In my sophomore year honors English class I was one of two minority students and the only student with a history of special education in a class of 40 students!

At first, I started doubting myself and whether I belonged there. Many minority students who are taking a rigorous course load experience this at least once in their academic career.

So, what is the reason behind the dramatic small enrollment of Latinx students in rigorous courses at SVHS - when they make up the majority of the school?

I decided to do some research.

I created a student survey through the school’s email blast system, asking teachers to have students take the survey.

The survey ran Feb. 12 to March 16, generating a total of 151 diverse student responses.

In the write-in-responses, some students expressed anger toward SVHS. Some felt there was a lack of commitment from the teachers. One student questioned whether all teachers have studied the subject they are teaching. Another reason for the anger expressed on behalf of students is the lack of communication between students and the administration (at both the school and district levels). Similarly, many students highlighted institutional inequalities in terms of SVHS.

A portion of the survey asked students to develop an educated guess explaining the achievement gap - specifically between Latinx and white test scores.

There were four popular responses regarding the educated guess:

1. Not all parents attended school or have the knowledge needed to assist their students

2. The lack of support, resources (such as tutoring) and accommodations students receive

3. The low limits that are placed on minority students, which makes them feel inferior

4. Language being a barrier - particularly for the students who are English Learners.

After analyzing the research, I developed various recommendations for school districts and wrote a report. I also spent time analyzing the district’s standardized test data.

For example, at Sassarini Elementary School some of its students took the state’s annual standardized test (CAASPP) and, for the math portion, out of the 98.8 percent of students tested, only 11.6 percent were found to be proficient or better, and this school resembles the other five elementary schools in terms of performance.

I recently read two books, “Freakonomics” and “Superfreakonomics,” both by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. In them, the authors present data and arguments showing that the achievement gap is actually due more to socioeconomic background than race. The idea that the family’s salary is a major component of the gap does make sense, as Sonoma Valley High School has a huge population of students receiving free or reduced lunch. A low socio-economic background connects to a low educational background, which backs up that student survey reply: ‘Not all parents attended school or have the knowledge needed to assist their students.’

The main reason why the gap exists is that the majority of students attending our public schools are minority students, who have a higher chance of coming from a low-income family.

Both authors also argue that the achievement gap not only has a factor of the economy but a biological component as well.

What do they mean by this? Well, families with a low level of education (which connects to a low socio-economic background-as previously established) tend to have a lower IQ, as shown with data, while an educated and high earning family, on average, has a higher IQ. Alongside this argument is the evident reality that a student with a lower IQ will not only test lower but will have difficulty catching up to the latter student. Now, you may be wondering what the point of referencing Levitt and Dubner’s findings? To that, I answer: the different factors, expanding from financial status, biology and race, shine a light on the reality that not all issues, such as the achievement gap, are one-sided.

Jacquelyn Torres is a senior at Sonoma Valley High School.

Read the Report

To read Jacquelyn Torres' full survey report, click here.

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