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Closing California’s achievement gap

Most of the upheaval in public education over the last decade was prompted by the achievement gap. Middle-class, white and Asian American students scored much higher on standardized tests than their disadvantaged, black and Latino counterparts. Those in the latter groups were far more likely to drop out and far less likely to attend college. The gap doomed entire subpopulations to generally lower-paid, less-fulfilling jobs as well as higher unemployment.

The reasons for the gap are many and complex. But there’s no denying that at least part of it has been caused by shameful disparities in the allocation of school resources. Just a few years ago in the Los Angeles Unified School District, students in poorer neighborhoods couldn’t take the courses required to attend a four-year college — no matter how bright or hardworking they were — because their high schools didn’t offer the courses. When there was a shortage of qualified math and science teachers, these schools, not the ones in more affluent areas, were assigned teachers who lacked credentials in the necessary subjects.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act was a clumsy attempt to address such lapses by demanding steep improvements in the standardized test scores of the low-achieving groups so that by 2014 they would have the same levels of proficiency as more privileged students. In fact, under the law, every student would be proficient in reading and math, an unachievable goal for any group unless the proficiency standards are set extremely low. Yet as badly as the law was written, it put needed pressure on schools to improve. And many of them did.

When standardized test scores are released each year, as California’s were this summer, there are complaints that, even with strong gains overall, the achievement gap is not closing. But that’s because critics of the schools tend to use an overly simple measure of relative improvement. In many ways, the state has made substantial headway, for which schools should be receiving credit.

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The reading scores of white and black fourth-graders offer a good example. In 2003, when No Child Left Behind took effect, only 27% of black students in California scored as proficient, compared with 59% of white students. By this year, the proficiency rate of black students had nearly doubled, to 52%. The proficiency rate of white students had increased by about a third, to 80%. In other words, both groups improved markedly. Eight years ago, there was a 32-point gap between the two groups’ proficiency rates; that has narrowed to a 28-point gap, which has been described as a “modest” reduction.

But viewed as a percentage, black students’ gains were impressive. In 2003, they were less than half as likely as white students to achieve proficiency; now they are two-thirds as likely.

Attempts to measure the achievement gap lead to the uncomfortable but necessary judging of one group’s growth against another’s. What if, in the example above, the number of proficient white students had increased to 70% instead of 80%? The achievement gap would have narrowed substantially, but that doesn’t mean black students would be any better off. As it happens, white students are often in a position to show the quickest improvement when schools do better, because they tend to have more support at home in the form of educated parents with the financial resources to provide them with enrichment opportunities. The important thing is to keep pushing for improvement for the students who have historically underachieved so that, eight years from now, we will see the achievement gap virtually erased.

There are pitfalls to any overly simple way of measuring progress, including when we judge by percentage gains. If only 2% of black students had tested as proficient in 2003 and the number were 6% now, their proficiency rates would have tripled, but there would be no cause for celebration.

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What nine years of testing data for California show is that there is plenty of improvement to admire in elementary schools. Latino and low-income students, even more than African American students, raised their proficiency rates and narrowed the point gap with white students as well. Scores in elementary math improved more than those in reading. And the percentage of black and Latino students taking algebra in the eighth grade more than doubled, to virtually the same level — about 60% — as white students. In 2003, early critics of the No Child Left Behind Act said this kind of progress would be impossible because of poverty and low parent involvement. They were wrong.

Results are quite different for high schools, though, where none of the groups show really heartening improvement. Is that solely because high school students are more cynical about the tests and don’t bother trying very hard? Probably not. Schools have only begun the process of assigning more qualified teachers to schools in low-income areas and offering college-prep courses.

Critics of the school accountability movement argue that test scores don’t reflect what students have been learning. It’s true that reform overemphasizes standardized tests and the arbitrary goal of scoring as “proficient,” which means different things in different states. But the tests do provide a rough measure of educational basics. Students whose scores are at the bottom levels probably don’t understand the material. A student who scores as proficient most likely does. The tests might measure a limited set of skills, but if students are better able to read and do math, that’s an important change from where they were eight years ago.

California test scores indicate that although the state has far to go in improving results for disadvantaged and minority students, schools have made truly laudable gains with younger students, regardless of which ethnic or economic category they’re in. The proper response to the tests, then, is not to bash schools for failing to eliminate the achievement gap within eight years, but to praise the progress made in lower grades without getting complacent. The state must continue to build achievement levels, especially among disadvantaged and minority students, and figure out the reasons so many high school students falter, regardless of their ethnicity or financial status. California’s students are getting a stronger start, but stumbling at the finish line.


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