Academic Redlining
A New Jersey district’s efforts to reduce education inequities hiding in plain sight

Christopher Tienken
Findings from AASA’s “The American Superintendent: 2020 Decennial Study” suggest that superintendents are more often the ones leading discussions about educational equity in their school communities.

But educational equity also was found to be one of tasks that superintendents engaged in the least. Only 7 percent of respondents in the national study indicated equity was an issue on which they spent a considerable amount of time. Personnel management, conflict management and relationships with the board of education were the top three issues that most frequently consumed superintendents’ time.

The 1,000-student Wildwood School District in Wildwood City, N.J., has been shining a light on educational inequity for years. The district leadership is not immune to issues that can divert time away from equity, which might seem less pressing than the sharks circling the boat. The district leadership created a systemwide focus on education inequity so that it does not get obscured and left hiding in plain sight.

Class Makeup Evidence

Redlining is a euphemism originally used to describe discriminatory practices carried out by mortgage lenders and real estate agents to deny people of color housing located in certain neighborhoods. 

The term expresses the practice of drawing actual red lines around particular neighborhoods to denote areas where people of color would be denied loans, according to reports by the U.S. Federal Reserve. Redlining was just one method used to racially segregate neighborhoods within cities and cordon off the northern suburbs.

Educators who use standardized tests results as the deciding factor for student entrance into academic programs can unknowingly replicate the racial and socioeconomic segregation seen in American society and exacerbate educational inequity in schools. Although ample evidence suggests the use of standardized testing as the determining factor for academic placement of students leads to academic red-lining and segregation along the lines of racial and socioeconomic status, the practice continues widely.

The negative impact on education equity caused by using standardized test scores to determine academic course placements or admittance into selective magnet programs can be seen in some schools simply by walking the halls and looking at the demographic makeup of advanced academic classes and self-contained special education classes. The impact becomes apparent during a deeper dive into the socioeconomic status of students in those course tracks.

Shining Light

The Wildwood School District leadership team took a systemic approach to determining whether racial and/or socioeconomic disproportionality existed in their high school programs. The demographics of the high school include a large population of students who identify as Latinx and a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Administrators in the district collected and analyzed data on race and socioeconomic status of students in specific programs. They calculated likelihood ratios to mathematically identify programs in which inequity existed based on race or socioeconomic status.

The calculations to derive a likelihood ratio are straightforward and require just two steps. First, calculate the percentages of racial representation in the specific program by dividing the number of students of a particular race enrolled in the program by the total number of students of that race eligible to access the program. Then you multiply that number by 100 to obtain the percentage. For example, if looking at a high school’s honors English program, students in K-8 should not be included in the calculations because they are not eligible to access the program. 
As superintendent of New Jersey’s Wildwood Public Schools, Kenyon Kummings (second from right) has put a process in place that enables students and their parents to make informed choices about demanding courses.


Next, use those percentages to calculate the disproportionality ratio. Divide the percentage of the most-represented racial group in the specific course or program of interest by the percentage of any other racial group of interest. The resulting number will be the likelihood ratio. In general, likelihood ratios near 1.00 suggest an equitable balance exists relative to access into higher-level courses, whereas a ratio of 1.50 would suggest that one group is 50 percent more likely to be given access than another group.

The ratios indicated that students who identified as white were somewhat more likely to be placed in higher-level academic courses at Wildwood High School than students who identified as Latinx or students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

Addressing Disproportionality

Understanding why white students are more likely to be in higher-level course tracks compared to students from other races can be difficult because course enrollment patterns are affected by a confluence of factors, such as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. These factors include low birth weight, exposure to lead, living in an abusive home, being treated unfairly due to race or ethnicity, death of a parent, divorce or living in poverty.

Non-ACE factors such as prior academic achievement, English language status or a significant learning disability also can contribute to the disproportionate course assignments.

The existence of ACE factors or other issues should not be used as excuses for failing to address academic redlining when it is found. Although some factors reside outside the purview of school personnel, district leaders directly control some critical variables that often contribute to redlining, and they can ameliorate others. Entrance requirements for course placement and the supports available to succeed once in the courses are two important factors that leaders control in attending to academic redlining.

Positive Growth Data

The leadership in the Wildwood School District developed a multipronged approach to root out inequity that is still evolving seven years after its inception. The approach began with the creation of a standards-aligned, curriculum-based internal assessment system. 

District leaders were aware that New Jersey’s state-mandated testing in mathematics and English language arts did not accurately capture what the Wildwood students knew or could do. A district administrative team created an internal system based on multiple measures from the language arts and mathematics curricula to provide actionable, real-time data for teachers, who were the lead actors in the assessment process. 

The internal data began to show that many students who were deemed not proficient on state tests actually were handling the state-mandated curricula well and made substantial yearly growth.

The revelation of positive and consistent student growth on curriculum-based assessments led the team to examine, and subsequently revise, the district’s course and program entrance requirements. Leaders determined the entrance requirements for advanced academic programs and courses were almost totally reliant on standardized test scores from state assessments.

Multiple Measures

Wildwood leadership found some students who were not previously selected for higher-level courses due to low state-standardized test scores yet consistently demonstrated high achievement on the district’s curriculum-based measures. Those students tended to be Latinx and/or eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The leadership team convened a committee, led by the high school principal, that included teachers, administrators and a university professor to develop criteria based on multiple measures to find students who were historically redlined out of higher-level courses by criteria based on standardized test results.

The multiple measures included results from curriculum-based assessments that provided information about student learning from multiple vantage points and resulted in a weighted framework. Assessments included running record reading levels, curriculum-based reading comprehension tests and standards-based benchmark writing assessments in language arts and various district-created bench-mark tests in mathematics.

The committee also included a non-academic measure based on student motivation. The motivation measure acts as a safety valve for students who find themselves on the bubble of multiple measures of academic entrance requirements. Students with high motivation can earn extra points that can help them meet the entrance requirements. Students are not penalized for lower levels of perceived motivation.

The school district partnered with university professors to assist with the creation of curriculum-based assessments and to act as auditors to monitor the reliability of assessment administration and scoring practices.

The high school leadership provides and publicizes a waiver program for parents/guardians and students to place themselves into various courses in high school. The waiver process shares information with parents/guardians and students about the program that a student wants to enter, explains general course expectations, provides examples of expected work and types of readings students will encounter, describes homework requirements and outlines a clear policy on course changes so parents/guardians and students can make informed choices regarding waivers.

More Than Access

Wildwood’s leaders understand that access does not automatically create equity. Students must be prepared to make full use of the access. Therefore, the team also focused on upgrading curriculum and instruction and improving academic supports beginning in preK to better prepare students for high school.

The English language arts curricula were rewritten fully to embrace a balanced literacy approach and sustained by ongoing professional development, which includes consistent classroom coaching.

District staff learned how to monitor and use data from their internal assessment system to drive instruction and decision making. Data presentations occur at the district and school levels several times a year to keep staff informed of student learning trends. The data also inform the nature of the professional development.

A districtwide literacy council was created to enhance literacy practices across the board in all grades because the leadership knew the key to success in any higher-level course rests solidly on a foundation of literacy. The council includes the superintendent, principals, supervisors of curriculum, data and special services and teacher representatives. The council examines the literacy data, makes recommendations for programming and support services for teachers and students, and advocates for equitable programming.

Today, nearly one out of three high school students who identifies as Latinx is enrolled in Advanced Placement courses compared to only one out of five in the past. The data suggest progress.

Academic redlining vis-a-vis inequitable course enrollments are created and perpetuated by structures that facilitate segregation within schools. The creation of structures that generate equitable outcomes is the only effective and logical countermeasure, and it is the responsibility of district leaders to spend the time necessary to make such actions a priority for children. Otherwise, education inequity will remain hiding in plain sight.

CHRISTOPHER TIENKEN is the AASA research professor in residence and an associate professor of education leadership, management and policy at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. He is the author of The School Reform Landscape Reloaded: More Fraud, Myth and Lies. Twitter: @christienken. KENYON KUMMINGS is superintendent of Wildwood Public Schools in Wildwood, N.J.