White-Black Achievement Gap: Stagnation Among Older Students

By Sean Cavanagh — July 14, 2009 2 min read

This morning, the top statistical wing of the U.S. Department of Education is releasing a study on the achievement gap between white and black students. There are more details in EdWeek’s story on the subject, which describe the mixed bag of results. A couple points worth special attention:

—Much of the progress in closing the achievement gap, at least in individual states, appears to be occurring at the 4th, rather than 8th grade level. Fourteen states, plus the District of Columbia, narrowed the gap in math from the 1990s to today. They are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. But among 8th graders, only four states narrowed the gap in math: Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. There was a similar drop-off, though not as pronounced, from 4th to 8th grade in reading.

Should be interesting to see how states spin these scores. Some of them may choose to focus on having a more narrow overall gap between white and black students than the national average—while ignoring the fact that the disparity in their states hasn’t lessened since the 1990s. Look to state and local coverage for a breakdown over the next 24 hours.

The mediocrity of older, American students in math has received a lot of attention in recent years. While younger students have made steady progress in math on the NAEP in recent years, scores among 17-year-olds have basically been a flat-line for decades. This report seems likely to prompt a re-examination of why this stagnation is occurring. Meanwhile, Congressman George Miller sees the continued achievement gap among 13-year-olds in reading as a factor contributing to students dropping out of high school.

—As with any study of NAEP scores, this one will almost surely yield discussions about No Child Left Behind’s impact, particularly since a major goal of the law was improving the performance of low-achievers. But a review of these results shows that finding a clear NCLB-related theme is difficult. Since 1999, the achievement gap among 9- and 13-year-olds closed, but not significantly; in reading, it narrowed significantly for students in both age groups. Among 4th graders, the gap has remained stagnant since 2003, but it narrowed in reading by a three-point, significant margin. The 8th grader achievement gap has closed significantly since 2003, but it’s been unchanged in reading since then.

So tell me: Can you detect a clear breakdown from the NCLB era in all that?

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