Equity & Diversity

Schools’ Role in Achievement Gaps Scrutinized

By Debra Viadero — November 14, 2006 4 min read
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Two new studies shed light on how the achievement gaps between groups of students grow as they move from elementary to middle school.

The studies—one by researchers Eric A. Hanushek and Steven G. Rivkin and the other by the Northwest Evaluation Association—both found that black students start out school trailing behind their white counterparts, learn less over the course of the school year, and fall further behind as they progress through school.

“School Quality and the Black-White Achievement Gap” is posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The report, “Achievement Gaps: An Examination of Differences in Student Achievement and Growth,” is available from the Northwest Evaluation Association.

But the studies diverge as they try to pinpoint potential causes for those learning gaps.

Mr. Hanushek and Mr. Rivkin, both university-based economists, suggest that the growth in the size of the learning gaps that occur as children move from kindergarten through 8th grade can be explained by certain differences in the schools that black and white children attend.

Catch-Up Unlikely

By and large, the study found, African-American children are likely to attend schools that are more racially isolated, have more inexperienced teachers, and have higher rates of student mobility than the schools that white children attend—and most of those factors pose bigger learning impediments for black children than for white students. “The dilemma of this paper is that we find school factors are very important, but it’s very hard for schools to change those specific factors,” said Mr. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank based at Stanford University.

The analysis by the Northwest Evaluation Association, by comparison, found that African-American, Hispanic, and poor students also tend to lose much academic ground over the summer when they are out of school. “Which makes me think it’s probably not completely a school factor,” G. Gage Kingsbury, the chief research and development officer for the association, said in seeking to explain the gaps in achievement.

Researchers at the NWEA, a nonprofit organization in Portland, Ore., that provides testing services in 24 states, analyzed achievement data from grades 3-8 for 570,00 students in reading and 540,000 students in math for the report. The report was slated for release this week.

Mr. Kingsbury said the gaps the authors found between black and white students, Hispanic and white non-Hispanic students, and poor and better-off students start out small but could grow up to 10 times larger by the time students leave school.

“Let’s say two students start out as average 3rd graders,” Mr. Kingsbury said. “If their differences grew to a standard deviation, that would mean the high-poverty student would be seen as borderline special education, and the student in low-poverty schools would be average.”

Part of the problem, the researchers found, was that poor and minority students learned less over the course of the school year than their white or wealthier counterparts who started out the year at the same achievement levels. In addition, though, the poor and minority students lost more academic ground over the summer.

With such learning-growth patterns, Mr. Kingsbury said, poor and minority children are unlikely to catch up to their higher-achieving peers any time soon.

Mr. Kingsbury said that doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that schools will be unable to meet the targets set out for them under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for improving the test scores of student subgroups, such as racial and ethnic minorities. “Just being proficient doesn’t mean you’re even with everybody else who’s proficient,” he observed.

Racial Makeup Key

For their study, Mr. Hanushek and Mr. Rivkin analyzed assessment results from two databases and focused just on the academic differences between African-American and white students.

One database was the Texas Schools Project at the University of Texas at Dallas, which contains longitudinal achievement data on all students enrolled in that state’s public elementary schools from 1990 to 2002. The researchers looked in particular at data for more than 800,000 students in grades 3-8.

For data on younger students, the authors drew on a federal study that is tracking a nationally representative sample of students beginning in kindergarten. The researchers posted their results last week on the Web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass.

The researchers said they focused on the share of black students within schools, the numbers of beginning teachers on staff, and student turnover. They chose those factors because previous studies have suggested that they affect African-American students disproportionately.

Of the three, the most critical school characteristic for black students seemed to be their schools’ racial composition. According to the report, the more concentrated that black students are in a school, the more rapid the growth in achievement gaps between black and white students. The negative impact of attending a racially isolated school, the study also found, tends to be greatest for black students who start out at the high end of the achievement spectrum.

“The positive aspect of all this is that schools matter,” said Mr. Rivkin, an economics professor at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., and the associate director of research for the Texas Schools Project. “It’s not that these things are preordained or based upon what kind of early-childhood experiences people have.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Schools’ Role in Achievement Gaps Scrutinized


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