A team of top education researchers at Stanford University analyzed nearly a decade’s worth of test score data, attempting to understand the gap that separated the results of white students from Asian, Black and Latino students nationwide.

Their study of scores from students in 3rd through 8th grade from 2009 to 2018 (at BUSD, just through 2016) found yawning gaps in reading and math scores at schools across the country. 

But Berkeley Unified stood out more than nearly any other. Among the nation’s 5,000 largest districts, it had the second-largest gap in scores, behind only Washington, D.C.

Five grade levels separated the reading and math scores of white and Black students in Berkeley. White students scored three grade levels above the national average in English and math, while Black students scored two grade levels below. 

This chart shows the difference in test scores in reading and math between white and Black students at districts nationwide from 2009 to 2018. BUSD is marked in orange with the number “1.” Credit: Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University

For white and Latino students, the achievement gap — now often called the opportunity gap, referring to the difference in educational opportunities available to students of different backgrounds — spanned almost four years, among the very worst nationally. Asian students also scored below white students, while performing about one grade level above the national average.

This chart shows the difference in test scores in reading and math between white and Hispanic students at districts nationwide from 2009 to 2018. BUSD is marked in orange with the number “1.” Credit: Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University

For close observers of the school district, the results would not be surprising. It’s a district where children of professors rub shoulders with those whose families have been living below the poverty line for generations. The opportunity gap continues to dominate Berkeley’s school board races, budget decisions and superintendent priorities, as it has for decades.

In 1968, the district cemented its progressive reputation by becoming one of the first to voluntarily integrate its schools, intending to end unequal opportunities for its students. But the differing outcomes for students have stubbornly persisted, haunting each subsequent superintendent to take the helm, each pursuing myriad initiatives designed to improve outcomes for the lowest-performing students.

“Our values say that we believe in educating all students but our data doesn’t necessarily reflect that,” said school board director Ka’Dijah Brown, an ’09 Berkeley High grad.

Tai Dickinson, a 2021 Berkeley High graduate, put it this way: The progressive ideals enshrined in the school district’s policy books, he thinks, have little to do with whether students feel supported by their teachers at school.

“You can talk about how you change this and that policy, but it’s not really enacted — it doesn’t make a difference,” Dickinson said. 

It’s difficult to determine exactly how BUSD’s achievement gap has changed over the last 50 years, owing to a lack of historical data that’s easy to compare across time. In general, Black and Latino students across the United States caught up substantially to white students between 1970 and 1990, but progress has been uneven since.

Tai Dickinson, a 2021 Berkeley High graduate and incoming Cal student, chats with Jose Gonzalez Vasquez, a current Berkeley High student on Aug. 8, 2023, during a meeting of the RISE program, which prepares low-income students for college. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Over the years that the study spanned, scores for Black Berkeley students slid. The gap was wider in 2016 than it was in 2009. Scores for Latino and Asian students improved during that time.

Race is just one way to cut the data. Students with disabilities, those who are homeless or in foster care and those learning English also struggle at schools nationwide and in Berkeley, though the Stanford data doesn’t offer the same kind of analysis for those student groups.

Today, there are some signs the achievement gap in Berkeley is no longer quite so grim as illustrated in the Stanford study. But as the number of low-income and Black students in the school district shrinks each year — Black students make up 13% of the BUSD population today, down from a peak of 43% in the 1990s — the results become more difficult to interpret. A new study by the Stanford team, for example, no longer includes scores for Black students because the sample size is too small. 

The recent state data we do have show that the gap — still wide — has started to narrow. 

Even as the pandemic set students across the country back, Black, Latino and Asian students in Berkeley did a bit better in reading, though scores fell in math for most student groups. In 2022, 30% of Black students in Berkeley met reading state standards, up from 27% in 2019. The same year, 83% of white students did.

Data for last year’s state test scores are not yet available, but in a presentation at the end of her first year as superintendent, Enikia Ford Morthel struck a hopeful tone, backed by promising internal data in elementary reading scores.

“I want there to be a day we can ask [‘How are the children?’] of each other in Berkeley and truly answer, ‘All the children are well,’” Ford Morthel said at the presentation, referencing a traditional Maasai proverb she routinely uses at school board meetings. “They’re not all well yet. But they are a whole lot better because of our collaboration.”

Still, the stubborn gaps in test scores at Berkeley schools beg answers to the fundamental questions facing education: Why are Black and Latino students still performing so far below their Asian and white peers? To what extent are test scores a mirror for the inequality and structural racism permeating American society? How — and for what — should school and district leaders be held accountable?

Integrating Berkeley schools failed to close the opportunity gap

In 1968, Berkeley Superintendent Neil Sullivan reported on a staggering achievement gap: The top quarter of Berkeley 8th graders scored in the top 1% in the nation. The top half scored in the top 3%. The bottom quarter, in the bottom 14%.

That data, published in a report to the school board, became the impetus for Berkeley’s decision to voluntarily integrate. “The large discrepancies between the results achieved at different schools represent … a serious challenge to the concept of equality of educational opportunity,” the committee on integration wrote in its 1968 report.

A scan from Berkeley High School 1969 yearbook opening page, a photo of a diverse group of students in the school courtyard.
A diverse group of Berkeley High students gather in the school’s courtyard in this photo, printed in the high school’s 1969 yearbook. Berkeley Unified made the historic decision to integrate all elementary and junior highs across the district the previous year. Credit: Berkeley Public Library

The initial years following integration were tumultuous, filled with racial tension as well as optimism that scores would rise. But integration turned out not to be a silver bullet for closing the opportunity gap.

By 1972, school board director Mary Jane Johnson warned of a “full-blown rebellion by Black parents,” who were furious with the district over Black students’ poor performance on standardized tests. “If Black kids and Chicanos can’t make it in this community,” Johnson, who was Black, told the San Francisco Examiner, “they can’t make it anywhere.”

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A radical decision, an unfinished legacy

Berkeley Unified made history by voluntarily integrating its schools 50 years ago this fall. In a special three-part series, Berkeleyside explores that history and its legacy in a very different present-day Berkeley.

Articles in regional newspapers assessed Berkeley’s so-called “integration experiment” with skepticism. The Examiner concluded in 1981 that integration had made it possible for some exceptional Black and Latino students to excel, but scores remained unchanged for the vast majority.

One effort to close the achievement gap included the work of Pedro Noguera, who served on the Berkeley school board from 1990 to 1994, whose son graduated from Berkeley High and who is the Dean of Education at the University of Southern California. In 1996, a team of researchers led by Noguera started what they termed “The Diversity Project” at Berkeley High, using research to raise awareness about the achievement gap.

At the end of six years, the researchers felt they had made progress, but the gap persisted. 

“Despite the optimism that led us to believe that Berkeley High School could be a place where racial disparities in achievement could be reduced through school change, we did not achieve our goals,” Noguera reflected on the project in the book Unfinished Business.

“If Black kids and Chicanos can’t make it in this community, they can’t make it anywhere.” — Mary Jane Johnson, Berkeley school board director, in 1972

By 2000, the statistics were still appalling. This time, the top 47% of Berkeley students ranked in the top 25% in the nation. However, not one Black student ranked in the top quartile, and 70% were in the lowest 25% nationally, according to data shared at a meeting of Parents of Children of African Descent, which had formed to agitate the school district to do more about the results.

“In desegregating schools in 1968, we thought all we had to do was mix everybody up to assure equality,” school board president Shirley Issel told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “We were so naive. To achieve the dream of public education as the great equalizer, we have to work a lot harder than we thought.”

And work they did. In the last two decades, the district has implemented a flurry of initiatives designed to improve the scores of Black and Latino students. 

Javier Rebollar, a RISE case manager meets with Berkeley High students Selena Russell-Zazueta and Fusililly Faiva, to set up and review their schedule for the fall semester. RISE, an after-school program, offers academic support for Berkeley students. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

District leaders identified internal structures that they thought reproduced inequality. 

The district added small schools at Berkeley High, hoping to foster supportive communities, and the universal 9th grade. There was a campaign to raise attendance. Efforts to reduce suspension rates for Black students and reduce tracking. Culturally affirming programs like Umoja, Puente and the Talented Tenth. The growth of career and technical education classes and programs to get students to college like Bridge and RISE. The establishing and expansion of the Office of Family Engagement and Equity

Parents have formed advocacy groups like Parents of Children of African Descent and Latinos Unidos de Berkeley to hold the district accountable for educating their students.

And the city has put its weight behind the issue, too, attempting to address the achievement gap in its 2020 Vision.

And after all these efforts, the gap persists.

Early discourse around achievement gaps was rooted in racist pseudoscience

As efforts to address the achievement gap were underway, so was a fierce debate about the root cause of it.

Why, in a city that believes so staunchly in equality, is this problem so persistent?

The debate carried on with fervor in boardrooms, ivory towers and kitchen tables. Some in Berkeley blamed children’s families. Others blamed the school district. Meanwhile, academics laid out statistical arguments attributing poor academic outcomes to poverty and parent education.

“It’s been a really long time since I’ve heard anybody blame families.” — Dana Moran, Berkeley High ethnic studies teacher since 1993

The origins of discourse around racial achievement gaps date back to the 19th century, when pseudoscientists measured the size of human skulls and attributed the differences to genetic inferiority. Scientific racism was used to explain differences in everything from IQ to health outcomes. Debunked in the 20th century, the arguments morphed into a social justification for the low test scores of nonwhite students and resurfaced with books like Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve.

People who still hold these ideas believe that inequality in test scores is fundamentally the result of deficits inherent to Black and brown people. That explanation shifted away from genetics to the cultural deficit argument that was popular in American discourse through Barack Obama’s presidency. Some in Berkeley put the responsibility of low test scores on “parents who don’t care.”

This view has increasingly fallen out of fashion in Berkeley. “It’s been a really long time since I’ve heard anybody blame their families, which is how it originally started,” said Dana Moran, an ethnic studies teacher at Berkeley High since 1993, though the case is still made in anonymous comments on Berkeleyside articles. 

Data show that family wealth tracks closely to academic performance

1st Day of Middle School 12
First day of school at Laura Kretschmar’s 6th grade class at MLK Jr. Middle School on Aug. 16, 2023. This year, Berkeley Unified implemented a new middle school enrollment policy designed to ensure diversity in all three Berkeley middle schools. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

As these arguments were unfolding, a growing body of research was developing that linked test scores with socioeconomic status, parents’ education and children’s achievement in school.

When it comes to economic inequality, Berkeley is particularly unequal. The median white household in Berkeley earns $128,000 per year, compared with $68,000 for Asian households, $67,000 for Latino households and $43,000 for the median Black household. About 80% of white and Asian adults in Berkeley have a bachelor’s degree, compared with half of Latino adults and 29% of Black adults.

Together, these factors fundamentally shape children’s lives, from how much their parents read to them to how much chronic stress they experience on a daily basis. It means the difference between a parent who can pay for private tutoring for their struggling child and a parent who is struggling to put food on the table. Racism, separate from class, also leaves a mark on children’s ability to perform in school, research shows.

While Black Berkeley students score below grade-level on average, it’s the extremely high scores of white students that explain the city’s exceptional achievement gap.

In Berkeley, family income tracks neatly onto students’ academic performance. In 2000, students from the Zip codes with the wealthiest families had the highest GPAs, and the reverse was true, too. The wealthier the neighborhood, the better the students’ grades, with few exceptions.

Analyzing hundreds of millions of standardized test scores for American schools from 2009 to 2018, the Stanford researchers found the same trends were true at schools across the country. Their research found that parents’ income and educational level, as well as patterns of racial and ethnic segregation, were by far the most significant factors shaping achievement gaps.

A page in Unfinished Business shows that both household incomes and average GPAs were higher for ninth graders living in the Berkeley Hills than the Berkeley flats in 2000. 

Most schools with large gaps in scores are not integrated like Berkeley. The Stanford researchers found school segregation to be the most important predictor of achievement gaps, but Berkeley — like districts in Evanston, Illinois, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Menlo Park  — was an outlier in this trend.

School districts with the smallest achievement gaps between students of different races tended to be places where all students performed poorly. The exceptions tended to be school districts serving wealthy students. The best test scores for Latino students in the country came from Briarhill Manor Union Free School in Westchester, where 4% of the student body is low-income.

Of the largest 464 districts in California, there are none where Black students perform more than one grade level above the national average, but schools in wealthy enclaves like Orinda and Los Altos come the closest. Piedmont, an affluent city carved out of Oakland, is the only school district, among the state’s 772 largest, where Latino students score two grade levels above the national average.

“Would we make more progress if you would address poverty? Absolutely. And is it unfair to expect schools to solve these problems by themselves? Definitely. Is there more schools can do to better serve low-income kids of color? Absolutely.” — Pedro Noguera, former Berkeley school board director

In Berkeley, while Black students score below grade-level on average, it’s the extremely high scores of white students that explain Berkeley’s exceptional achievement gap. In Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Black students are slightly further behind than they are in Berkeley, but white students are not as far ahead as they are here.

In his 2004 book Race and Class, academic Richard Rothstein looked at the data and concluded: “The influence of social class characteristics is probably so powerful that schools cannot overcome it, no matter how well trained are their teachers and no matter how well designed are their instructional programs and climates.”

While the data is undisputed, Rothstein’s conclusion is far more controversial, and a huge portion of education research is devoted to the study of what schools can do to fix unequal outcomes.

Noguera doesn’t dispute the intimate relationship between poverty and test scores. But, he said, there are exceptional schools that overcome these barriers. There is no reason that Berkeley High, with its progressive values and its resources, cannot be one of them.

“Would we make more progress if you would address poverty? Absolutely. And it is unfair to expect schools to solve these problems by themselves? Definitely,” Noguera said. “Having said that, is there more schools can do to better serve low-income kids of color? Absolutely.”

In California, several of these exceptional schools are in the KIPP charter network, where students consistently score two grade levels or more above the national average. (Critics of the network have argued the strong results are tempered by high levels of attrition, suggesting that the most challenging students may be dropping out, though it’s been years since the debate resurfaced in the national press.)

What makes the difference at exceptional schools? Studies converge on things like high-quality preschool, effective and experienced teachers and a challenging curriculum — but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Berkeley students say racial biases and dismissive attitudes held by some of their teachers contribute to academic disparities

Berkeley High graduates Ashley Felipe (left) and Tai Dickinson (back center) with current students Haleemah Mujahid (right) and Jose Gonzalez Vasquez (front). Credit: All four are participants in the RISE program. Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Asked what’s keeping Berkeley, with all its resources and good intentions, from becoming one of those rare schools where poor students perform on par with wealthy students, some will definitively answer that it’s the racism of low expectations.

“Perhaps the most devastating root to the achievement problems at BHS lies with the teachers. Teachers too often prejudge their students because of their ethnicity, social background, or academic history,” Berkeley High student Rachel Hamburg wrote in an opinion article for The Jacket in 2004. “Students who are expected to achieve less usually do.”

This view reverberated throughout conversations with some students, parents and district leaders. In a passionate outgoing speech in 2018, school board director Karen Hemhill called implicit bias the “single most significant factor in our continuing academic disparities.”

“There are many middle-class and other college-educated Black families, including mine, that can cite chapter and verse of how their student was perceived as less than,” Hemphill said in the speech. 

Ashley Felipe Campuzano, a recent graduate of Berkeley High’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, recalled how a teacher talked her out of taking AP Chemistry because she thought she couldn’t succeed. Tai Dickinson, also an IB grad, said that while retaking a test with a group of students, his AP science teacher referred to them as “the dumb kids.” 

They said some of their teachers held low expectations for them and gave preference to high-achieving white students. “I was trying to improve my grade and the teacher was like, ‘No, I don’t think you can,’” Felipe Campuzano said.

Campuzano stands in a doorway in sweatpants and a t-shirt
Ashley Felipe Campuzano, a recent graduate of Berkeley High’s International Baccalaureate program, recalled how recalled how a teacher talked her out of taking AP Chemistry because she thought she couldn’t succeed. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

These isolated incidents stack up, Dickinson said. “You’re not worthy of my help, is what it feels like,” he said.

From his perspective, what mattered was whether his teachers held him to a high standard, believed whole-heartedly he could meet it and did what they could to help him get there. Too often, Dickinson said, that’s not what happened, at least when he was a student. This fall, Dickinson will be attending Cal after two years at Berkeley City College.

Beginning in elementary school, school board director Laura Babitt said she went through the same thing with her daughter. In kindergarten, Babitt noticed that her daughter’s teachers sent home low-level independent reading books, even though she was reading above grade-level at home. In first grade, the same thing happened again.

“I thought that the rest of the class must have still been behind, which is why she kept sending home little baby books with my child,” Babitt said. “I found out that … other kids in her class were reading higher books.”

Reflecting on his work at Berkeley High, Noguera, the researcher and former school board director, said the most frustrating manifestation of this problem was Black and brown kids wandering the halls of Berkeley High or smoking weed in Civic Center Park, when they should have been in class.

“The school district is there, the city is there, the police department is there,” Noguera told Berkeleyside. “It was such a disgrace. There’s almost a total professional disregard for the fact that many of those kids are not getting an education, but it’s disguised by a kind of liberalism.”

That’s the kind of racism most prevalent in Berkeley, Noguera said, though more overt examples exist, too. Haleemah Majahid, a junior at Berkeley High, said her teacher used the N-word in class in a historical context, deeply offending students.

“Students who are expected to achieve less usually do.” — Berkeley High student Rachel Hamburg, in 2004

Last year, students in RISE, a program that prepares low-income students for college, began conducting their own research study on the academic success of Black and brown students at Berkeley High. In the end, the students will offer suggestions for teachers, informed by the surveys, on how to improve their relationships with their students.

One solution, often proposed but difficult to actualize, is to hire more diverse teachers. It’s not just that students want a teacher who looks like them. They want a teacher who they can relate to — a teacher who can discipline them with a familiar raise of an eyebrow, recognize when they’re not giving their best and draw on examples that resonate with their life experiences.

To be sure, there are already many teachers in Berkeley who raise the bar for their students and lovingly hold them to it.

Jose Gonzalez Vasquez, a junior at Berkeley High, said he feels close with pretty much all his teachers. When he missed multiple weeks of his sophomore year due to illness, they were understanding, he said, helping him learn the material he missed. Some parents Berkeleyside spoke to said they have few complaints about their children’s education at BUSD. 

Still, the experiences of tacit and overt racism, repeated by some students, parents and school board directors, are part of the district’s lore, as ingrained in its story as integration, putting cracks in its progressive veneer.

Teachers look beyond the classroom to help students overcome daunting challenges

The office walls of RISE’s executive director, Andrea Betti, at Berkeley High are filled with photographs of students and graduates. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

To be a teacher in Berkeley is to every day be confronted with the challenge of closing an achievement gap that too often falls along racial lines — and to face the difficulty of interrupting the deep-rooted pattern.

“We are trying to address and respond to generations of systems of oppression,” Superintendent Ford Morthel said.

Teachers “take a ton of personal responsibility for the failure of our students,” Moran said. “We also understand there’s certain realities that we’re up against that make it sort of wishful thinking to think that one teacher could have some huge influence.”

To Moran, there is no bigger challenge, or bigger success, than changing the mind of a student who thinks that they cannot succeed in school. 

“We are trying to address and respond to generations of systems of oppression.” — Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent

In recent years, she has tried to do this through a class called LEAP, a tiny support class for 9th grade students that makes explicit the kind of invisible academic knowledge that leads to student success. She feels hopeful that she is reaching students. Alumni of the class, some attending colleges like UCLA, come back to tell her that she made a difference in their lives.

Adrianna Betti runs RISE, the college prep program that is part academic support, part social work. In her 25 years with RISE, she has witnessed the wide range of challenges students face — homelessness, food insecurity, deportation, friends lost to violence. She sees her job as helping students succeed in school in spite of those challenges.

Adriana Betti, RISE ‘s program director, and students Fusililly Faiva and Haleemah Majahid review a yearbook made by students. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Programs like RISE and Bridge are working: They are getting low-income, first-generation students to college. But they serve a small share of the students who need it. Program directors say they turn away students every year. “Why don’t you fund programs that have shown a track record since 1976, that have been successful every year?” Betti asked. (This year, the district agreed to give RISE more funds to be able to grow their program and pay their staff better wages.)

Retired math teacher Dan Plonsey believes teachers and school board directors have an obligation to advocate for policies at the state or national level that will redistribute wealth and address intergenerational poverty, alongside running their schools and classrooms.

“I believe the moral obligation remains for all who are involved in education to collectively, as a profession, protest the root injustice” while attempting to improve schools, Plonsey wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “It’s akin to doctors striving to improve treatment for gunshot patients while at the same time advocating for gun control.”

District leaders say they’re motivated, not discouraged, by persistence of opportunity gap

With each new superintendent, the Berkeley community holds its breath, hoping that this will be the leader to bring about a turn in the achievement gap.

Before Superintendent Ford Morthel started in her role last summer, she told Berkeleyside she intended to “make some changes in a system that’s pretty stubborn.” 

A year into her tenure, it’s still too early to evaluate her success. But we asked if she is discouraged by the persistence of the opportunity gap, year after year, decade after decade.

“Revolution has never been easy,” Ford Morthel replied. “I don’t think that any of us come into this work taking for granted how incredible the task at hand is.” 

Describing her work as “social justice in action,” Ford Morthel said she is motivated, not disheartened, by the persistence of score gaps, a sentiment shared by her leadership team and repeated in many conversations with school teachers and administrators.

“We need to recognize that structural, societal challenges do play a role in how students come to us every day,” said Associate Superintendent Jill Hoogendyk, who oversees curriculum and instruction. “But we come to education believing that we can help encourage and inspire and make a difference.”

Berkeley Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel presents the results of her first year of work during an in-person event for district staff and families on May 31. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

This year’s focus is on improving classroom instruction, Ford Morthel said, and literacy is the heart of that. The hope is that if educators get it right the first time, incorporating more explicit phonics in the younger grades in a way that reaches all students, they will need to rely less on intervention strategies later on.

Much hope has also been placed in the African American Success Framework, led by a team of education consultants, with Robyn Fisher at the helm. 

Started during the pandemic, the framework is an umbrella for a list of initiatives that support Black students. The consultants offer their own programming, like Step Up Academy, a summer intervention program, and bring together existing offers, like the case management designed to reduce the number of Black and Latino students identified for special education. Brown described it as the most comprehensive effort to address the opportunity gap she has seen.

The district’s other initiatives, like the Latinx Resolution and Multilingual Learner Master Plan (in English and Spanish), are in play as well, though they have received less air time at school board meetings. 

“Even 20 years from now, there’s still going to be work to do.” — Ka’Dijah Brown, Berkeley school board director

The district also offers a range of supplemental programs targeted toward low-income students. If parents can buy private tutoring and academic summer camps, Berkeley Unified wants to offer intervention through BEARS after-school and makerspace camps in the summer. 

“People’s socioeconomic status, I can’t really influence that as much,” Babitt said. “All I can do is try and fill in the gaps with these culturally relevant programs.”

District leaders also don’t neglect to list the other things that are integral to their work, like partnering with families or offering classes that will engage a more diverse set of student interests, like sound design, through BUSD’s career and technical education program. 

Ford Morthel doesn’t believe schools alone can address all the effects of systemic oppression. That, she said, will require collaboration — with parents, with the city, with community organizations.

When can we expect to see the end of the opportunity gap at BUSD? 

“There’s no magic formula,” Babitt cautioned. 

“Even 20 years from now, there’s still going to be work to do,” Brown said. “But incremental progression is the name of the game for academic outcomes.”

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...