Yapping About the Achievement Gap

By Sean Cavanagh — July 16, 2009 2 min read
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Reaction to the recent report on the black-white achievement gap has rolled in from across the country, and it’s predictably varied, based on how well or poorly individual states fared. In some ways, I suppose this reflects the power of the publicly reported state-by-state results on NAEP, though you could make the argument that states have become pretty adept at ignoring test scores when the results don’t suit them. Kati Haycock of the Education Trust made a similar point to me in the story I wrote about the results.

Still, I think this report, put together by the National Center for Education Statistics, will have legs, and we’ll keep hearing state and local education officials referring back to it when they’re touting one particular education policy or another. The state-by-state and state-to-nation comparisons are simply too compelling a storyline. You could write the press release from any number of state commissioners of education right now: “According to a study released this year, the gap between African-American students and white students in [insert state here] is larger than the national average in 4th grade reading and has actually widened over time. ...” Followed by the announcement of a new literacy program, early-childhood initiative, or similar proposal. I’d compare reaction to this study with what I remember as a pretty strong wave of coverage that followed another NCES study released a few years ago, which examined where the states were setting their “proficiency” bar on state tests, which was of course all over the map.

A couple responses from the states worth noting:

—The results were “outrageous and ought to be an immediate call to action,” a former state schools chief in Illinois tells the Chicago Sun-Times, referencing his state’s achievement gaps.

—From Wisconsin, where the black-white achievement gap exceeded national averages in all four reading and math categories: “Somebody needs to ask questions about why other states are making more progress and Wisconsin isn’t,” Haycock told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “How is it that Wisconsin has lower performance among African-American kids than Mississippi or Alabama? How does that happen?”

—For Florida, one of only a couple states to narrow the gap significantly in 4th grade math and reading, the results represent “tremendous progress,” said state education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, but the state has “much more work to do.”

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