Published Online: October 1, 2009
Published in Print: October 7, 2009, as Achievement Gaps Continue to Narrow, Report Says
Includes correction(s): April 4, 2012

Achievement Gaps Continue to Narrow, Report Says

Achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students on state tests have narrowed in many instances in the past decade—continuing a trend that appears to have been bolstered in the 1990s by the standards-based-reform movement, concludes an analysis released last week.

The study from the Center on Education Policy analyzes the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers, and between minority and white students, using test data from all 50 states collected from 2002 through 2008.

Viewing those gaps through a variety of lenses, the report finds that, on the whole, the disparities appear to be narrowing because of the accelerated achievement of lower-performing groups, not slower progress by high-achieving groups. Nevertheless, achievement gaps continue to remain as large as 20 percentage points or more in some states, the report indicates.

“By no means are we saying that we’re in nirvana; there’s a long way to go,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based research group. “But as a nation, if we ask schools to narrow the achievement gap and that’s what the schools are doing, we should give them credit for it.”

Parsing the Data

The report does not provide any insight into whether the federal No Child Left Behind Act accelerated—or hindered—progress in closing the gaps. Much of the historical narrowing of achievement gaps predates the nearly 8-yearold law, and the study design does not account for the multitude of factors, such as changes to instruction or accountability policies, that may have influenced student progress during that time.

For the analysis, the CEP collected information about student performance in mathematics and reading generated from the NCLB-required assessments in all 50 states at grade 4, at one middleschool grade—usually 8— and at one high school grade.

The group examined the progress of subgroups of low-income students compared with more-advantaged ones, as well as the progress of white, black, Latino, and Native American students in the states. It included only those trend lines that incorporated three or more years of data on the same exam.

Across all the subgroups, grade levels, and subjects studied, 74 percent of the trend lines show the gaps in the percentage of students scoring at the “proficient” level narrowing, while 23 percent show them widening.

For the trend lines that show black-white score gaps narrowing, the percentage of students who were proficient grew at a faster rate for the African-American subgroup than for the white subgroup in 142 of the 153 cases.

Even where gaps widened, the report says, both groups tended to improve, but the comparison group of white or more-affluent students improved more than the subgroup, a phenomenon Mr. Jennings likened to “all boats rising with the tide.”

Overall, the gaps narrowed more often for the black and Latino subgroups than for the Native American or low-income ones.

The report also looks at raw changes in scores among the subgroups. Viewing the gaps from this additional perspective is crucial, the report states, because counts of “percentage proficient” do not provide information about performance above or below proficient.

Additionally, achievement gaps can appear to be wider or narrower depending on where states decide to set the cut-off score that determines proficiency, the report says.

Of the 579 trend lines studied according to this broader methodology, score gaps were seen to narrow only 59 percent of the time. In 37 percent of those cases, the discrepancies widened.

The report notes that the overall phenomenon of narrowing gaps appears consistent with long-term data from national assessments in reading and math, which show low-income and minority students narrowing the gap with their more-advantaged and white peers since the early 1970s. Gaps widened again in the 1980s, only to appear to begin closing again after 1999, the national data show.

An Exaggerated Reading?

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, questioned why the narrowing gaps don’t appear to show up on the most recent administration of the long-term-trend National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The data show gains among many subgroups from 2004 to 2008 in reading at three age levels, but the gains were not enough to significantly close gaps. Also, Mr. Fuller pointed to a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Education that found a number of state reading tests showing significantly smaller gaps than those identified by state NAEP results.

State test results may be more responsive to small improvements on relatively low-level skills, thus exaggerating the apparent narrowing of gaps, he contended.

“[The report] admits that when you use average [scale] scores, you don’t see nearly as much progress,” he said. “That confirms that part of the progress on the percent-proficient measure is because the proficiency bar is set so low.”

But Mr. Jennings offered an alternative explanation for the better results on the state measures.

“Before 2002, there wasn’t much testing in the country; after 2002, there’s bucketloads,” he said. “Students are tested a lot now, and in a way, there’s almost test fatigue. The tests they’re going to pay attention to are the state accountability tests, not NAEP.”

Vol. 29, Issue 06, Page 6

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story should have quoted Bruce Fuller as saying: "[The report] admits that when you use average scores, you don't see as much progress. ..."

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