Learning How to Make Your School More Equitable Through an Equity Audit

Understanding Equity and the Purpose of the Audit

High schools should be a place where every student has the opportunity to find their passions, succeed, and have a path for their future. And when we say every student, we mean it, regardless of who they are, where they come from, where they live, or how much money their family makes. So, how do you actively promote equity in your high school or district? 

When inequities arise—a problem that can affect any school or district, large or small—unbalanced access to learning and funding resources means that certain groups of students are often put at a disadvantage. Oftentimes, these sorts of imbalances can be the result of socioeconomic or racial disparities, but no matter the cause, they must be addressed so that all students will benefit equally. 

Equity is different from equality

“Simply put, equity means being fair and impartial” to students according to this principal in Indianapolis. In the context of high schools, this means meeting youth where they are, learning about their needs, and who they are. This means “putting students first, giving them a voice, and being willing to make the necessary changes to provide them with the best education possible.” So how can changing high school help us build a more equitable country? High schools are the source and engine for mobility in our society. Equitable high schools are the golden ticket for students across the country.

Equality, on the other hand, refers to equal access to educational resources.

For example, there may be equality issues for students in large vs. small classes or in a high school’s access to counselors or other officials. By contrast, equity in high schools depends on an individualized approach for every student and the understanding that each student will require different resources depending on a variety of factors.

As a result, there are many ways to think about increasing a school’s equity, but audits are a fundamental way of beginning the process. In general, equity audits are a means to identify, assess, and tackle issues of inequity in a school’s practices and policies, and help ensure that every student succeeds, regardless of household income, race, gender, or ZIP code. And teachers, administrators, and even students should have a say in the process of finding ways to create a truly inclusive school culture.

Two important ways of thinking about equity audits are:

  1. Whom to involve in the process
  2. Why and how you plan to collect information about your school.

On the first point, the University of Tennessee of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education Susan Groenke endorses what she deems the “practitioner inquiry” of teachers and administrators who must be on the lookout for inequities in their schools:

“When poor, minority students do not perform well on accountability measures, teachers and school administrators often cite factors external to schooling (e.g., children’s parents, their home lives, their communities, and even their genetics) as a cause, or the students themselves (something internally wrong with them), rather than the institution of schooling — the assumptions, beliefs, practices, procedures, and policies of schools” (pg. 85).

According to Groenke, an audit like this is a useful tool that helps equity-minded educators reach their accomplishments by identifying areas where they and the school can improve. That’s why it’s so crucial to include anyone who has a stake in the success of the school and its students in the audit.

Here are three major areas of equity audits researchers say schools should plan to collect data:

  1. Teacher quality: teacher experience and retention, as well as their own education and educational certification.
  2. Educational programs: special needs, including ESL, special education, and gifted education.
  3. Student achievement: student enrollment in college prep courses, AP/Honors courses, and performance on standardized tests.

These three key areas together form the foundation of your avenues of inquiry. While the amount of information you collect may seem daunting and disparate at times, it will be good to keep these major areas in mind as you move forward with planning your audit.

How to Conduct an Equity Audit

An equity audit is a process of identifying any problems of inequity in your school. But an audit is not simply a one-step process; it’s a host of several different activities and undertakings that reveal the information you need to develop and foster a more equitable school culture.

The Education Trust-West’s “Diploma Matters: A Field Guide for College and Career Readiness” includes a number of useful resources and documents that you can utilize for your own equity audit. These documents form a toolkit from which you can craft your own action plan. Let’s consider some of the main tools that are at your disposal:

  1. Study of Student Transcripts
  2. Focus Groups
  3. Community Inclusion: Conversations, Interviews, and Survey

Study of Student Transcripts

Transcripts are an easy way to collect student data about prior academic achievements and gauge whether or not students are prepared to succeed in college-level courses. You can break down your data collection by subject, year in school, etc. in order to understand student progress and identify potential problem areas for learning success. The results from this analysis can be illuminating: perhaps academic difficulties are concentrated in 10th grade or in a particular sequence of classes. Perhaps students of a particular identity or circumstance have a lower success rate in a particular subject or a certain grade is not leading to success in other courses.

Whatever the case, studying the academic progress of students and identifying initial patterns from the data is an important first step in your audit.

Focus Groups

In addition to looking at academic progress according to student transcripts, you can learn more about school equity from focus groups. By focusing on the community within and without the school, you can contextualize the information that you have gathered from the transcripts.

Focus groups should usually consist of 10-15 participants, and the number of focus groups will depend on your school and district size, with more focus groups needed for larger schools. You should try to incorporate a diverse group of participants in each group so that you can put together an overall accurate picture.

Consider conducting different sorts of focus groups so that you can collect a wide array of useful information. Students can offer an important perspective on equity in their school, but parents can supply important additional context. In addition, teachers, as well as counselors, have different sorts of interactions with students, so it is important to include as many different sorts of groups as possible in your audit.

Here is a possible model for focus groups and the questions you might ask each group.

Focus Group Participants and Questions

Students Questions about likes/dislikes of the high school experience, including academic successes and difficulties, interaction with teachers/counselors, and perception of college/career readiness.
Teachers Questions about teaching success and areas of improvement, including student preparedness and enthusiasm, student access to AP/Honors courses and academic support, and the accommodation of student diversity in the classroom.
Counselors Questions about typical interactions with students, the perceived and actual role of counselors in the school, how counselors use achievement data in their job, student access to courses, and student preparedness for college.
Parents Questions about the perceived difficulty of student coursework, graduation requirements, student access to courses, and student motivation inside/outside the classroom.

After you’ve conducted a series of focus groups, try to identify patterns and commonalities across them. Do they have the same ideas and concerns about student learning? Do parents and teachers value the same sort of outcomes for student learning? What do students view as the expected learning outcomes for themselves? Putting this sort of information together will begin to give you a more complete picture of the issues about equity and student achievement in your school.

Community Inclusion: Conversations, Interviews, and Surveys

Finally, community engagement can form an important cornerstone of your audit. Following the focus groups, a community conversation can yield additional crucial information. This conversation can take many forms but should include several more participants than the focus groups (100+) and center on what should be expected of high school graduates. In addition, individual interviews of key stakeholders and mass surveys can be used together to get a better sense of the district’s reputation and public expectations about student learning there.

There are certainly other tools you can use for your equity audit, and each school will have different needs when it comes to collecting data. You should feel free to explore other possible tools for your audit. Though you should form your audit with a clear plan, be flexible in how you eventually collect data should problems or new opportunities present themselves.

The Importance of Equity to Student Success

An audit represents just the first step in a school’s path to equity; a school must take continual stock of issues of equity and access in order to provide all students with an excellent education. Many schools across the country have emphasized equity for their students through different innovative solutions. Let’s take a look at some to inspire your own school’s pursuit of equity:

School in Los Angeles: RISE High 

This school in Los Angeles emphasizes flexibility and an individualized approach to help students for whom a traditional educational environment has not been successful. Intended to address the issues affecting homeless students and foster youth, Da Vinci RISE High offers unique resources to help students connect to their school:

  • The campus is integrated with youth and social service agencies as well as the wider community.
  • The use of a non-traditional schedule offers students an individualized educational program focused on mastery rather than a rigid structure.
  • Customizable and individualized student schedules/course offerings emphasize flexibility. 
  • Course curricula and learning pathways are competency-based.

These sorts of innovations, among many others, allow RISE High to meet the demands of a student body that is to a large extent economically disadvantaged (77% qualify for reduced-price school meals) or students of color (89% of the student body is Latinx or black). Thus, the high school focuses on equity by meeting students where they are and using innovative techniques to promote access to educational resources for every student.

School in Memphis

Student learning at this school in Memphis, Tennessee emphasizes the real-world value of high school education by stressing connections to businesses, non-profits, and other organizations. This focus allows students to pursue a variety of career paths while also focusing on their own interests rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. This organization promotes equity in several ways:

  • The Crosstown Concourse allows the high school to share a space with numerous businesses and organizations that aid in student learning and professional development.
  • Students pursue their own interests in project-based learning with time scheduled to pursue self-directed projects or individualized curricula.
  • Advisors and community contacts are the cornerstone of student engagement and learning.

Students at Crosstown contributed to the school’s design, making their voices heard in the role that the surrounding community should play in the school. This sort of drive toward equity shows the school’s focus on real-world experience and links to the community, features of the school that are driven by student initiative and insight.

School in Indianapolis

Purdue promotes the real-world applicability of student learning. Through a focus on the lack of access to career guidance and opportunity for low-income students and students of color, Purdue aims to prepare all its students for careers in technological and scientific fields:

  • Learning centers on preparing students for being future members of the workforce and making links to the community.
  • Purdue offers students an individualized flexible, project-based schedule and courses allow students to earn college credit and industry experience.
  • Student projects address real-world problems, local and global.

Equity at Purdue looks like an effort to meet students where they are through project-based learning while preparing them for careers in technical and STEM-related fields. The importance of access to community and industry links, while at the same time remaining flexible in how students achieve these learning goals, makes for an overall equitable high school experience.

Final Takeaways

When educational opportunities are not available to all of the students in your school or district, then it may be time to address them with the activities of an audit. Think of the equity audit as an opportunity to collaborate with teachers, students, and the community, an idea that is key to understanding school design. By including students and community members alongside school administrators and teachers, you can achieve equitable results for your school with novel approaches that you may not have considered before. 

Equity can also form part of your school’s mission and importantly its overall culture. An equitable learning environment in high schools because it allows for an individualized approach to learning that can benefit every student. When a school meets students where they are, academically or otherwise, everyone benefits.

Interested in making schools more equitable? The resources below will help you do so.