A Closer Look at Achievement Gaps in Math

By Sean Cavanagh — April 09, 2009 2 min read
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Last month I attended an event marking the 20th anniversary of the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent panel that oversees the NAEP. There were a lot of good presentations, but one in particular that I’ve been meaning to write about was given by Peggy Carr, the deputy commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. Carr was speaking on a panel about achievement gaps between minority and white students. Her talk focused on what the NAEP, the nation’s most prominent test of student academic skill, which her agency administers, tells us.

She offered a lot of intriguing information breaking down the performance of whites and African-Americans on the NAEP, which I thought would be of interest to readers of this blog—researchers, policymakers, reporters, the general public.

Carr gave me permission to post the slides from her presentation on my blog, so you can look at them here.

Her explanation of the NAEP scores lays out pretty clearly some of the challenges the nation faces in terms of closing the gaps in performance, course-taking expectations, and, it seems, the rigor of math classes, between minorities and non-minorities.

A few of the highlights:

— Among students of all races at the high school level, there are big differences in NAEP math performance depending on the highest math course students reached in school. The average student score on the exam was 152 on a 300-point scale. Students who reached calculus in school scored an average of 192. But for those who made it only as far as Algebra 2, the average was a 142. Those who got no further than Algebra 1? They scored only a 110. Bottom line: Students who take tougher math courses are doing much better on the NAEP . (Slide 3)

— The percentage of both whites and blacks taking advanced math or calculus in school is increasing. The portion who are stopping at Algebra 1 or below is dropping. Seems like good news. (Slide 4)

— Yet many more white students, 23 percent, are taking Algebra 1 before they reach high school, than are African-Americans, 8 percent. (Slide 5)

— Among those who took Algebra 1 before high school, a high percentage of both white students, 90 percent, and their black peers, 82 percent, moved on to advanced math and calculus. Similarly, a much smaller portion of students from both races moved on to those top courses if they didn’t take Algebra 1 early. Take introductory algebra at a relatively young age, and you’re more likely to move on to advanced math. (Slide 7)

— A piece of data I found pretty intriguing: Students who reported notching an “A” in their advanced math or calculus course often fared very differently, depending on their backgrounds, on the NAEP. Students from low-minority schools who got an “A” grade scored an 188 average, out of 300. But their peers from high-minority schools averaged only a 167. It appears that a high-grade in a challenging math course can mean very different things in schools serving different populations. (Slide 10)

A lot of policymakers in recent years have pointed to NAEP scores, and course-taking patterns, as evidence that students need to be encouraged to take more demanding classes, particularly algebra, earlier in school, if they’re going to pursue the most challenging math. Others, such as Tom Loveless, have urged policymakers to be cautious in reading that data, and not simply set across-the-board course requirements in math that aren’t realistic.

After you’ve had a chance to look at Carr’s presentation, give me your read on the data, and what it says about the achievement gap.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.