Achievement gap tunnel vision
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.
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.