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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Researchers, including one from the University of Louisville, have found a direct correlation between wide achievement gaps between white and black students and higher disciplinary disparities between them, according to a national study released Wednesday.

The research, published by the American Educational Research Association, confirms a relationship between out-of-school suspensions and lower academic outcomes, particularly for black youth, and that minority students are more likely to face discipline than their white peers in schools across the country.

The results didn’t surprise the research team, said Ben Fisher, an assistant professor in U of L’s Department of Criminal Justice and one of the study’s four authors.

“I think there’s a very gut-level understanding that these things are probably linked to each other, and there’s also some strong theoretical and even some initial empirical evidence that they’re linked," he said in a phone interview Wednesday. "And so seeing the very robust relationship between the achievement gap and the discipline gap for black and white students was not very surprising at all."

While researchers identified a link between the achievement gap and disciplinary disparities between white and black students, they couldn’t say how one factor influenced the other.

Essentially, are students who struggle in class more likely to misbehave and face suspension from school or are students who are suspended from school falling further behind academically?

“One of the shortcomings of our study is that we can’t definitively disentangle the causal relationship between the discipline gap and the achievement gap,” Fisher said. “It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg issue. We don’t know which one is driving which, but the fact that they’re linked the way that they are, it makes it very likely that improving one will lead to improvements in the other.”

The study, the most expansive of its kind according to AERA, looked at achievement gap data from the Stanford Education Data Archive and discipline data from the Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years. The academic data covered third through eighth grade standardized test results required across the U.S. under No Child Left Behind.

Researchers looked at differences between white students and their black and Hispanic peers. While they found a relationship between achievement and discipline gaps between white and Hispanic students on the surface, that dissipated once they accounted for district- and community-level factors, such as poverty and unemployment.

That wasn’t the case when researchers looked at achievement and disciplinary data between white and black students and took those same community factors into account.

“We were surprised to learn that the relationship between achievement and discipline gaps among Hispanic and white students was not attributable to the racial discipline gap, but rather to other factors,” Francis Pearman, an assistant professor of education at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said in a statement.

“Our results suggest that potential mechanisms connecting suspension to discipline—such as teacher biases or feeling isolated at school—may be most salient for black students.”

The study comes a day after the Jefferson County Board of Education reviewed data that showed substantial gaps in academics and disciplinary measures between black and white students.

Those figures indicate that black students at Jefferson County Public Schools have made up 64.5% of suspensions across the district so far this school year even though they are about a third of its enrollment.

On the first of three Measures of Academic Progress tests this school year, 63% of white students demonstrated grade-level achievement in reading compared to 34% of black students. In math, 58% of white students showed grade-level achievement compared to 26% of black students.

The district’s latest K-PREP scores also showed significant gaps between white and black students in reading and math. At the elementary level, white students outpaced their black peers in reading proficiency by 33.2 percentage points and in math by 32.4 percentage points. In middle school, the proficiency gap in reading was 30.6 percentage points and 29.2 percentage points in math.

But the study encouraged school districts to embrace interventions that JCPS has recently enacted in its effort to lessen those academic and disciplinary disparities between white and black students, such as improving professional development for teachers, implementing culturally relevant curricula and introducing positive behavior interventions and supports in schools.

“I think any efforts to make people who are more marginalized feel less marginalized are going to be really useful steps,” Fisher said. “I think the academic literature on PBIS has shown some really optimistic findings around how it might reduce discipline.”

“Any sort of these efforts to keep people in school and keep engaged, I think, is going to be a really useful step for JCPS or other districts,” he added.

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