School & District Management

Study Probes Factors Fueling Achievement Gaps

By Debra Viadero — November 26, 2003 4 min read
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Racial and ethnic achievement gaps in American education have deep roots that extend far beyond the schoolhouse, a report released last week concludes.

If the United States is ever going to shrink those gaps, it says, the nation will have to pay attention to all of the factors—in school and out—that conspire to keep African-American and Hispanic students from catching up academically with their non-Hispanic white classmates.

Compiled by the Educational Testing Service, of Princeton, N.J., the report was released here at a Capitol Hill briefing. Its aim is to give educators and policymakers a place to start tracking national progress in closing the persistent achievement differences between groups of students: a set of 14 research-based indicators linked to learning.

The report, “Parsing the Achievement Gap: Baselines for Tracking Progress,” is available from Educational Testing Service. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

On each indicator, black and Hispanic students are at a distinct disadvantage.

The numbers show that educational inequalities begin at birth, when many black and Hispanic babies enter the world weighing less than doctors consider healthy. As toddlers, the statistics suggest, black and Hispanic children are apt to be read to less often than their white peers or to have just one parent at home.

In school, they end up in larger classes with teachers who are less experienced and less prepared than those who teach white students. And the academic fare that black and Hispanic children get is often thin gruel compared with the meatier, more rigorous courses white students take.

“If we’re talking about reducing the gap, then we’ve got to talk about cleaning up the lead and recognizing that hunger and nutrition is important if you’re going to talk about ability levels,’' said Paul E. Barton, the report’s author and a former director of the Policy Information Center at the ETS.

National test results released this month show just how timely the report’s conclusions are. While minority students made some improvements in reading and mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the 4th and 8th grades, they still fell behind their white counterparts—a gap that has more or less persisted in size since the late 1980s. (“Math Climbs, Reading Flat on ’03 NAEP,” Nov. 19, 2003.)

“Closing the achievement gap, many of us believe, is American’s new civil right,” U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican and the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said at the briefing.

Gauging Disparities

Mr. Barton undertook his study in two steps. First, he pored over research syntheses to find 14 factors associated with school achievement. Then, he looked to find whether racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic disparities existed in those areas.

Mr. Barton found racial and ethnic gaps in all of them. On 11 of the 12 indicators for which Mr. Barton could find socioeconomic data, poor children lagged behind those from more affluent families.

Some factors he chose have long been associated with learning difficulties. Lead poisoning, for one, has been linked to lower IQ scores, attention problems, learning disabilities, and behavior problems since the 1960s, and programs have been put in place to reduce children’s exposure to it.

Yet, the report says, 434,000 children under age 6 have dangerously high lead levels in their blood. And black children may be more than three times more likely than white children to live in older houses where they can be exposed to lead.

For other indicators in the report, such as class size, researchers still disagree on the impact on learning. But 31 percent of teachers in schools with high minority enrollments teach classes with more than 25 students. In schools where 10 percent or fewer of the students are members of minorities, the proportion of teachers with classes that big is 22 percent.

“I think those who are protagonists on the issue would conclude that minority students and poor students should have classes at least as small as everybody else,” Mr. Barton said.

In the area of student mobility, data were scant, Mr. Barton said. The statistics he found, dating back to 1994, suggest that African- American and Hispanic 3rd graders are at least twice as likely as their white peers to have moved three or more times since 1st grade. With every change in school, the report says, students have to face teachers who know little about their learning histories, work that may be unfamiliar, and the task of making friends all over again.

Mr. Barton called on researchers and policymakers to use his 14 factors as a baseline for a set of national indicators on the achievement gap—a job that might best be handled by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies of Sciences. He and Rep. Boehner are now discussing that idea.

Ronald F. Ferguson, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who has long studied the achievement gap, agreed with the focus on factors that contribute to the gap.

“These are all things that we have recognized in the past, but it is worth reminding ourselves frequently that we have to attend to them,” he said. “The fact that we talk about them doesn’t mean we’re adequately addressing them."</>

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