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Mind the (achievement) gap

Today, Rothstein and Ali assess whether we're paying too much attention to the achievement gap. Later in the week, they will debate the No Child Left Behind law, reasons for lagging minority achievement, reforms to boost students' performance and more.

Achievement gap tunnel visionBy Richard Rothstein
The "achievement gap" is not the most reliable indicator of shortcomings in the learning of minority and economically disadvantaged students because:

  • The gap is the difference between minority and white achievement. If we could raise minority achievement substantially, this would be very worthwhile, even if white achievement also rose and prevented the gap from narrowing much.
  • How we measure the gap nowadays is technically flawed and politically manipulated.
  • Our focus on the gap, as opposed to changes in minority and disadvantaged students' achievement itself, distracts us from critical initiatives, both inside and outside schools, to improve the performance of these students.

I'll touch on each of these issues in this initial posting.

1. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, includes tests given by the federal government to representative samples of students nationwide. Our national data on reading and math go back 35 years; there are no comparable state-by-state historical data. What we know from the national test is this: In fourth-grade math, black students' average performance is now as good as white students' in 1991. In other words, if white students' average performance had been stagnant, the black-white fourth-grade math achievement gap would have completely closed. Because average white performance also improved, this gap hasn't narrowed much.

Nonetheless, the improvement in average black achievement reflects considerable progress. If we are too focused on what is wrong (and there is plenty), then we pay no attention to what we've done right to learn from our successes.

We should mostly be concerned about low average performance of disadvantaged students and commit ourselves to raising it. The gap itself is important, but less so; after all, one foolish way to close it would be to teach white students less. This is not a strategy anyone should advocate.

2. The term "achievement gap" properly refers to differences in average achievement of children from different groups — say, whites and blacks. Within these groups, there is always wide variation because of wide variation in human beings. There are black children who achieve better academically than typical white children, and white children who achieve below typical black children. Although there is a gap in their average achievement, the ranges of black and white achievement overlap.

Nonetheless, some people point to academically successful black students and say their success proves that all black students could be equally successful if only schools were better. This is illogical. All human experience has variation, and its causes are complex. The existence of high and low ends of the range should not distract our attention from the average.

Education policymakers nowadays define achievement gaps in a flawed and politically manipulated fashion. Instead of measuring group averages, they instead talk about differences in shares of students from different groups who "pass" a test. Most people never wonder how these passing points were defined. In fact, they have no credibility — most measurement experts condemn them. With no change in student performance, you can change the gap by changing the passing point. For the NAEP, the passing points (named "proficiency") are so high that even such high-scoring nations as Taiwan have never come close to having all children pass. On state tests, California's passing points in reading and math are among the highest, making it seem that California students do worse than students elsewhere, and that California's achievement gap is bigger than elsewhere. Recently, California tests have become easier to pass, making it seem that students are doing better. None of these conclusions are reliable.

When we look at the only meaningful data — average NAEP scores (not percent above so-called "proficiency") — we find that California's minority students have slightly lower average scores than the nation's. With California spending less on schools per pupil than other states with similar population characteristics, this is not surprising.

3. Improving average performance of disadvantaged students requires a combination of better schools and combating the social and economic disadvantages that affect learning. Improving schools takes more adequate funding and doing a better job with the money schools have. But if we want to help students take advantage of better schools, we also need to get them to school in better health, from stable and adequate housing, from safe and secure communities, and with opportunities to develop their potential in early childhood and in after-school and summer hours. All of these contribute to achievement.

For example, black children are more likely to live in communities where environmental conditions generate much higher rates of asthma, so black children are absent from school more often for this reason alone. The best school reform imaginable won't help students who can't benefit from it because they are not in class. Putting health clinics in schools serving low-income children could do wonders for their test scores.

I noted above that black students' average math scores have improved considerably, but reading scores have not. Is better fourth-grade math achievement because of better teachers, higher standards, students coming to school in better health, having better-educated parents, better early childhood and after-school opportunities, or some other causes? Instead of only bemoaning the achievement gap, we should examine these possible explanations of growth to learn from them.

Average black eighth-grade math achievement has also improved, but not as much. There's been little improvement in reading. We don't know why. One possibility is that schools have more influence on math than reading because reading fluency is influenced more by parent literacy levels and by the quality of early childhood and after-school opportunities. So if schools have improved more than the social and economic factors affecting student achievement, this might explain the difference. But this is all speculation. We should be striving to find better explanations for these complex problems.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and author of "Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap" (Teachers College Press, 2004). He was formerly the national education columnist for the New York Times.

The danger of ignoring the achievement gapBy Russlynn Ali
California's achievement gaps are real, scandalous and dangerous. State test data reveal a grim picture of education. Indeed, California's low-income, Latino and African American seventh-graders read at about the same level as white and more affluent third-graders.

If that's not chilling enough, a closer look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress data shows that we have considerably more work to do because all groups of California students perform below the national averages in reading, math and science. White eighth-graders in Tennessee have stronger reading skills than do those in the Golden State. Eighth-graders in Arizona are outpacing their California counterparts in mathematics. In short, this isn't about "those kids" bringing us down; it's clearly about our approach to schools and education.

Closing California's twin achievement gaps — the gaps separating California's low-income, African American and Latino students from their white and more affluent peers, and the gaps that separate the students in this state from their peers across the country — is the most pressing task facing our educators. The simple truth is that we cannot close the interstate gaps without closing the gaps that separate groups of children within our own state.

Richard, you correctly noted that these gaps can be closed through statistical trickery and gaming. California has long used statistical "shells" to cover up uncomfortable truths about education. When the statistics weren't enough to hide the shortcoming of our schools, some blamed our "diversity." But the fact is that states as diverse as California constantly outperform us. Take Texas, for example. It has as many low-income students as we have, and Texas is not known for being more progressive than California when it comes to addressing social issues. But Texas has helped its students — all kinds of students — achieve at much higher levels than we have in California. In part, that's because their educators focus on what they can do, rather than on what they can't do. Instead of dwelling on all of the out-of-school reasons that their kids should fail, successful educators across the country are focusing on what they can do to maximize the chances for student success. It turns out that educators can do an awful lot to ensure academic success, even in the face of poverty.

Too many children in this country are growing up under utterly shameful conditions, and all of us must work to change their circumstances. But we cannot for even one minute allow outside-of-school issues, as hideous as they are, to excuse the educational malpractice that occurs day in and day out in too many of our schools. The question that educators and policymakers must face now is not whether poverty affects student achievement but what public education can do to help students rise above those circumstances. Public education can be the great "equalizer" that we all think it should be, but only if we can get it to work better for poor and minority students.

Unfortunately, our schools routinely compound the damage that poverty and racism do by giving low-income students and students of color less of everything that makes a difference in student achievement: fewer strong teachers; less school funding; less rigorous curricula and assignments; sub-par facilities — the list goes on. No one should talk about the futility of closing achievement gaps when we continue to allow these inequities to persist in our public schools.

You're right, Richard, we are facing very complex problems in our public education system and in our society. Certainly our communities can do a lot to make life outside the classroom better for many of our children. I hope that you advocate before healthcare associations and urban housing authorities too, because schools can serve as community hubs for the vital services you describe. For example, the local Rotary Club joined other partners in San Jose to build clinics in needy schools where area dentists volunteer their services. It's important to keep in mind, however, that building and maintaining the clinics is not the job of the educators. The schools' work is and should remain focused on good teaching. Educators know that health clinics alone won't level the playing field for poor students. Nothing can provide as much opportunity as a solid education.

There is great danger in sending messages to education stakeholders that the achievement gap cannot be closed. Teachers and administrators will hear leaders decry the sheer impossibility of closing gaps and ask why they should even try to teach poor and minority kids to high levels. African American, Latino and low-income students will accept as truth that they will never be as "smart" as their white, Asian and more affluent peers, and parents whose children are hobbled by the gap will believe that their socioeconomic status should dictate their child's destiny.

There is a different message we all should be sending, one that my colleagues and I hear across the state in fast-improving schools serving mostly low-income, Latino and African American students. Their message is about hope, perseverance and hard work. Educators in these good schools see firsthand the results of poor healthcare and hunger, but they overcome these obstacles with what is within their power to deliver: strong teaching and academic supports. They rise to the challenge and stretch themselves and their students far beyond historical expectations, and their students respond in kind. These effective educators are demeaned by messages that suggest their work is a fool's errand.

Russlynn Ali is the executive director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based think tank focused on closing the achievement gaps separating low-income students and students of color from other young Californians.

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