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School & District Management

Study: States Must Move Faster to Close Achievement Gaps

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 14, 2010 4 min read

If states continue their current pace of progress in narrowing achievement gaps between students of different races, ethnic groups, and income levels, it could take decades for lagging student groups in some states to catch up to their better-performing peers, a study of more than 40 states has found.

The report, released Tuesday by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and policy group, breaks new ground by estimating the length of time it will likely take to close gaps in a sample of states, said Jack Jennings, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.

It shows that, overall, achievement gaps remain large and persistent across the nation, but the gaps between whites and Hispanics and whites and African-Americans are narrowing at a faster pace than those between whites and Native Americans.

“There’s some progress made in narrowing the gaps, but we have to do much more and kick it up much faster,” Mr. Jennings said.

Such gaps are closing—and, in some cases, widening—at an uneven pace among states, according to the report. In Washington State, for example, the Center on Education Policy predicts it will take 105 years to close the gap between white and African-American students in 4th grade reading at the rate it’s going. By contrast, if Louisiana continues at the same pace in narrowing the gap between those same two groups of students in 4th grade reading, the gap will be closed in 12.5 years. At the same time, the gap between whites and Native Americans in 4th grade reading in Colorado is growing rather than narrowing.

The study looked at the state testing data for all grades used for accountability purposes under the No Child Left Behind Act as well as data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the congressionally mandated testing program.

Looking Over Time

For the estimates of how long it would take to close gaps in a sample of states, the authors of the report selected states that had average-size gaps and data for all the years covered in the study, from 2002 through 2009. Overall, though, the study looked at testing data for all 50 states, basing its analysis primarily on the 41 states that had comparable test data for at least three years in a row.

Hypothetical Progress in Closing Achievement Gaps in Selected States

2002–2009

SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

It found that in 2009, test scores for Latinos in states were often 15 to 20 percentage points lower than for whites. For African-Americans, the gap in test scores was typically 20 to 30 points lower than for whites. The size of the test-score gap between Native Americans and whites was similar to that between African-Americans and whites. But states are generally narrowing the gaps between Latinos and whites at a faster rate than they are for African-Americans and Native Americans, the report found.

In high school math across the United States, for example, the gap between Latinos and whites in the percentage of students testing at proficient levels narrowed at an average rate of 1.2 percentage points per year for all states with adequate data. At the same time, achievement gaps between Native Americans and whites are commonly narrowing by an average of less than 1 percentage point per year in states, which translates to less gap-closing progress over time, according to the study.

John W. Tippeconnic, the director of the American Indian Studies Program at Arizona State University, Tempe, said in an e-mail that the findings about achievement differences between Native Americans and whites show “the complexity of Native American education today.” Questions that the study raises for him, he said, include: whether the absence or presence of teaching about Native American languages and culture had an impact on student performance, what the level of quality was of teachers and leaders in schools, how much the poverty status of students might have influenced their test scores, and whether students who attended schools on American Indian reservations performed any differently than those who attended schools off the reservations.

Mr. Jennings said that he hopes researchers will explore those and other issues about why achievement gaps continue to persist. “We don’t have enough money to go behind the data and look at the reasons behind the trends,” he said.

Not ‘New Story’

Another expert on achievement gaps, Edmund Gordon, a professor emeritus of psychology for Yale University and a professor emeritus of psychology and education for Teachers College, Columbia University, said the analysis published in the CEP report doesn’t tell “a substantially new story.” He wrote in an e-mail that “with a few modest exceptions, the gaps in academic achievement have remained a problem in education for my 60 years of studying the problem.”

Mr. Gordon argues that, to help close achievement gaps, “we certainly need good schools, but good schools may not be enough.” His research findings stress that supports for academic learning outside of school, such as those provided by families and communities, may be the “hidden curriculum of high academic achievement,” he said.

The report released Tuesday is meant to be a companion to a report on state test scores and NAEP scores released by the CEP in September. That earlier report, “State Test Score Trends Through 2008-09, Part 1: Rising Scores on State Tests and NAEP,” found that 67 percent of the 23 states studied showed progress on both state tests and the national assessment in 4th grade reading between 2005 and 2009.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week

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