School & District Management

Achievement-Gap Study Emphasizes Better Use of Data

By Debra Viadero — January 21, 2004 3 min read
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It’s not whether schools test students but what they do with the results, concludes a study of California schools that are narrowing the racial and ethnic gaps in achievement among their students.

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View the accompanying chart, “Mining Data.”

Based on data collected from 32 schools in the San Francisco Bay area, the study by the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative is unusual because it compares schools that are shrinking the achievement gaps separating white and Asian-American students from their lower-scoring black or Latino peers with schools that aren’t.

Most studies of gap-closing schools so far have dwelled on the success stories.

The California study, in contrast, sought to pinpoint what those successful schools were doing differently from the rest. It found that gap-closing schools tested their students often and used the results to make changes in their instructional programs. They changed schedules or made other arrangements to give teachers time to discuss assessment results, and they used experts and coaches to help teachers alter their instruction accordingly.

“So much of the debate in California and at the national level is on high-stakes tests and prepping kids for it,” said Kiley Walsh Symonds, the study author and the policy director for the San Francisco-based school reform group. “We hope we can contribute to a shift in the debate from before the test to after the test.”

Information on the study, “After the Test: How Schools are Using Data to Close the Achievement Gap,” is available online from the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative. The full report will be made available online.

Released last month, the study addresses a problem that schools are struggling with nationwide. In some national studies, for instance, the percentages of white and Asian-American students scoring at high levels are twice as large as for other groups.

The 32 K-8 schools in the California study included urban as well as suburban schools. They are among 124 schools in an improvement network run by the collaborative.

In 16 of the schools studied, the achievement gaps narrowed over a four-year period beginning with the 1998-99 school year. The gaps either held steady or grew over the same period in the rest of the schools. Researchers used scores from state standardized tests and standards-based assessments to determine which schools were succeeding and which were not.

The researchers also surveyed teachers in all the schools, visited them, and conducted case studies in three schools for a closer look.

Examining Data

Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed in the gap-closing schools said they used test and other data at least several times a month to understand their students’ skills gaps, and sometimes several times a week. That was the case for fewer than a quarter of the respondents at the schools struggling with large gaps.

Likewise, twice as many gap-closing schools as non-gap-closing schools received teacher professional development every week or every month on linking data to instructional strategies.

Joan E. Talbert, a co-director of the Center for Research on the Context of Teaching, based at Stanford University, said such findings were important and consistent with other school improvement research. But she questioned why the study focused only on the schools in the network that were making the most and the least headway on their achievement gaps.

“If you’ve got a relationship and you take the extremes, it’s going to look stronger than if you don’t use the extremes and look at the whole pool,” she added.

Among its other findings, the study showed that more successful schools tackled questions of race head-on. One took a painful look at markedly higher suspension and expulsion rates for its African-American students.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Achievement-Gap Study Emphasizes Better Use of Data

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