Some Calif. Achievement Gaps Are Widening, Study Finds

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After seven years of a school accountability program, achievement gaps in California’s schools are widening in some grades, according to a recent assessment of the state education system.

Conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, a think tank based at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, the study shows, for example, that the share of 8th graders from middle-class families proficient in English language arts in 2003 was 28 percentage points higher than the share of English-proficient students from low-income families. This year, the gap has grown to 33 percentage points.

Bruce Fuller, an education professor at Berkeley and a contributor to the study, said the state lacks a unified approach to improving low-performing schools.

“At the state level, we have six or seven fragmented programs aimed at low-performing schools,” Mr. Fuller said in an interview. “Every other year, the legislature takes a stab at the achievement-gap problem, but there’s no coherent strategy.”

The state, he said, also doesn’t have a focused approach to educating English-language learners, even though California’s population of students whose first language is not English has quadrupled since 1985, to roughly 1.6 million students.

Rick Miller, a spokesman for state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell, said the report offers some recommendations worth considering. “Clearly, there is a point where you have to re-address the system,” Mr. Miller said. He added that state education officials hope to find guidance early next year in the results of a large-scale research project on how the state finances education.

The PACE report, released Nov. 16, paints a different picture from a “report card” issued earlier this month by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a think tank in Washington. In the Fordham report, California was listed among the states making “moderate progress” in narrowing achievement gaps affecting low-income, black, and Hispanic young people. ("States Get Poor Grades on Closing Achievement Gaps," Nov. 8, 2006.)

The Fordham report also hailed the state’s academic standards, its success in hiring alternatively certified teachers, and its large number of charter schools.

Mr. Fuller agreed that the state initially made gains after the accountability program was passed in 1999, but said that since 2003, progress has leveled off.

The PACE report recommends, among other ideas, granting regulatory waivers to schools that are showing growth.

The report also recommends building incentives into the accountability system, such as salary supplements, or cash rewards for whole schools.

Vol. 26, Issue 13, Page 18

Published in Print: November 29, 2006, as Some Calif. Achievement Gaps Are Widening, Study Finds
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