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Unformatted text preview: 3/18/2019 ASCD Infobrief:The Achievement Gap: An Overview ASCD.org Home Store Current Issue Blog Empower19 Archives Buy Navigate Applications Help Log In Contact January 2006 | Number 44
The Achievement Gap: An Overview Closing the Gap: An Overview
Anne Rogers Poliako
First in a Series
John F. Kennedy Middle School, located in a California farming community a few miles from the Mexican border,
serves a student body that is 100 percent economically disadvantaged and 99 percent Hispanic. Once a school
where few mastered even basic skills, John F. Kennedy has made a remarkable turnaround over the past decade,
becoming an environment of high expectations, challenging curriculum, dedicated and hardworking sta , and
students who are learning (Manzo, 2005). Indeed, the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform
named it a “School to Watch” in 2005. Nearly simultaneously, however, the school was noti ed that it had not
met federal requirements for adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), despite a 5 percent
increase in just one year to 22 percent pro ciency in language arts.
The school's principal and teachers appear to be taking this disappointment in stride, but the irony does not escape them. Even when
schools, like John F. Kennedy, make remarkable progress, federal and state policies do not always recognize or support them. Further,
schools are expected to address achievement gap issues in isolation from other community and social institutions, whose many resources
could contribute to their resolution.
Persistent gaps between the academic achievements of di erent groups of children are thoroughly documented by the U.S. National
Assessment of Educational Progress and other statistical analyses of state assessments, grades, course selection, and dropout rates.
Despite improvements in some years, the gap endures as a consistent and disturbing phenomenon that contradicts the fundamental belief
that any child who studies and works hard, regardless of socioeconomic status, skin color, or country of origin, will succeed in school and in
life. And, having acknowledged this contradiction, the question becomes: Where does the responsibility for this failure lie? With the
schools? The kids? Their families?
Not a week passes without a news story or book review relating the tale of a school that has turned the tide (see Casey, 2000; Manzo,
2005). The Washington Post, for example, recently pro led North Glen Elementary School, which has increased 3rd grade pro ciency among
black students on the Maryland School Assessment from 32 percent in 2003 to 94 percent in 2005 (De Vise, 2005).
The Post story follows a formula well established in the elds of educational research and policymaking: rst, identify schools that succeed
in making headway against the achievement gap and, second, discover the recipe for their success. Accordingly, the article focused on
pinpointing the elements that made this dramatic change possible at a mixed-race suburban school where two-thirds of the students are
eligible for federally subsidized meals, ultimately concluding that North Glen Elementary “illustrates how a public school can go a very long
way in a very short time with the help of a charismatic principal, an enthusiastic sta and supportive parents” (De Vise, 2005, B6).
The public discourse about reform and the achievement gap is stuck between the grim statistical face of failure and shining stories of
success, courage, and charisma in the public schools. How are educators to negotiate this confusing territory, framed by hopeful portraits
of successful schools on the one hand, devastating statistical indictments on the other, and the taxing policy environment of NCLB on all
This Infobrief is the rst in a series that will focus on the achievement gap. The intent of the series is to provide guidance for policymakers
and practitioners seeking to institutionalize processes that successfully address achievement gap issues.
“The Achievement Gap—Closing the Gap: An Overview” seeks rst to examine what the gap is, as a statistical construct, and to present
what educational research has determined about its many causes, outside of schools as well as within. Such an examination will hopefully
lead to a deeper understanding of what is needed to close the gap—namely, a comprehensive set of strategies that consider the whole
child: developmental years, physical and emotional health, and supportive family and community structures, as well as schooling issues. 1/7 3/18/2019 ASCD Infobrief:The Achievement Gap: An Overview ASCD Position: The Achievement Gap
For all students to excel academically and thrive as individuals, we must raise the bar and close the achievement
gap. Educators, policymakers, and the public must understand the grave consequences of persistent gaps in
student achievement and demand that addressing these gaps become a policy and funding priority. ASCD believes
that all underserved populations—high-poverty students, students with special learning needs, students of di erent
cultural backgrounds, nonnative speakers, and urban and rural students—must have access to
Innovative, engaging, and challenging coursework (with academic support) that builds on the strengths of each learner and enables
students to develop to their full potential;
High-quality teachers supported by ongoing professional development; and
Additional resources for strengthening schools, families, and communities. Adopted in March 2004 The Alarm: The Achievement Gap
Children in some demographic groups—African American, Hispanic, and low-income—consistently score, on average, lower on measures
of academic achievement than children in other demographic groups—especially those from white and more a uent backgrounds. No
measure of academic achievement is more widely respected or consulted in the United States than the annual National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP), a congressionally mandated program of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Conducted
regularly since 1969, NAEP's purpose is to provide objective information about student performance. Its ndings are reported for
individual states and for the nation as a whole and are disaggregated by gender, race or ethnicity, income, and other factors.
During its nearly 40 years of assessment, NAEP has revealed substantial and signi cant achievement gaps, and although these gaps have
narrowed over the years, the fundamental trends underlying them have remained consistent. For example, even though the gaps between
white students' scores and the scores of Hispanic and black students narrowed by one or two points since the 2003 assessment (across
subject and grade), overall, minority students remained more than 20 points behind on NAEP's 500-point scales. Commentators variously
viewed these results—seen as a possible indicator of NCLB's e ect on student achievement—as premature, discouraging, or promising,
the last because, as Grover Whitehurst, acting commissioner of NCES, observed, a two-point gain per year could close the gap in 15 years
(Olson & Manzo, 2005).
These same scores can be viewed far more starkly, however. NAEP interprets the numerical scores as basic, pro cient, and advanced.
When 4th graders read at the basic level, it means that they have partly mastered the knowledge and skills they need at that grade level. On
the 2005 national reading assessment, 84 percent of 4th graders eligible for federally subsidized meals scored at or below basic (54
percent scored below basic). Among students not poor enough to qualify for a subsidy, 58 percent scored at or below basic (24 percent
scored below basic).
The statistics for racial and ethnic student groups are equally stark. Of black 4th graders, 87 percent scored at or below basic (58 percent
scored below basic). Of Hispanic 4th graders, 84 percent scored at or below basic (54 percent scored below basic). Of white 4th graders, 59
percent scored at or below basic (24 percent scored below basic).
Looking beyond national assessments, the achievement gap is signi cant enough to register on international assessments as well, such as
the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). According to TIMSS, the gap between highest and lowest 8th grade scores in the
United States is one of the largest among advanced countries. Whether one considers high school graduation rates, course selection,
grades, or dropout rates, the pattern is the same: black children, Hispanic children, and poor children consistently achieve at lower levels
than their peers (OECD, 2005). Deconstructing the Achievement Gap
The achievement gap is a signal, a warning that something has gone gravely wrong with the education of young people. It is not a diagnosis
of what has gone wrong. Making a diagnosis requires looking past the demographic trends to the variables that research has shown to
in uence student learning.
To examine achievement in mathematics, Ramirez and Carpenter (2005) analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study
(NELS:88) database, which includes variables known to in uence student learning in math (e.g., units of algebra completed, time spent on
homework, parental involvement). The researchers found that these variables had a similar e ect on white and Latino students and that,
“for the most part, white and Latino student achievement were mirror images of each other” (p. 602).
Attributing di erences between groups to the achievement gap, observed Ramirez and Carpenter, potentially obscures the complexity of
what is occurring: “We must be careful about jumping to conclusions simply because we nd a number that implies a di erence between
groups of students. We must always investigate the underlying factors that contribute to the average score for any group of students” (p.
2/7 3/18/2019 ASCD Infobrief:The Achievement Gap: An Overview To interpret the achievement gap to mean that categories of students, de ned by economic or racial status, are failing to achieve at the
same levels as their white or more a uent peers is missing the complexity of the issue. What the achievement gap actually shows is that
poor, black, and Hispanic students are more disadvantaged than their white and a uent peers by a range of factors that tend to inhibit
academic achievement. These factors—not those of being poor, black, or Hispanic—drive the achievement gap.
The recently released Pew Hispanic Center report The High Schools Hispanics Attend (Fry, 2005) found that Hispanics are much more likely
than either white or black students to attend large public high schools with greater concentrations of low-income students and strikingly
higher student-to-teacher ratios. Previous studies have linked all three of these factors to lower student achievement.
The Pew study indicates that these factors hindering academic achievement in high school fall heavily and disproportionately on Hispanic
students. Being Hispanic is not itself a variable that independently produces lower academic achievement. Beyond Demographics: The Roots of the Achievement Gap
The research presented by the Pew report and other studies indicates that educators and policymakers should look beyond the
characteristics of students to the context of learning. The Pew report points to the characteristics of schools, but the context of a child's
learning extends to family and community as well. When researchers look at these concentric rings of in uence, what emerges is a portrait
of the achievement gap's root causes.
One of the more comprehensive e orts to survey this learning landscape was the 2003 Educational Testing Service (ETS) report Parsing the
Achievement Gap, which identi ed 14 factors correlated with academic achievement and explored how these play out in the lives of children
from various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Author Paul Barton's review of the research found evidence that all these
factors weigh against the school achievement of racial and ethnic minority students and that most weigh against poor children. (Others
have reviewed the research on the roots of the achievement gap; see Editorial Projects in Education, 2005; Hertert & Teague, 2003.) Barton
was careful to caution that these factors often represent “the best researched representatives of a group of related or similar factors”
(thus, lead poisoning is a marker for environmental hazards) that might shape the learning environment inside a school or during a child's
developmental years (p. 6).
This Infobrief considers these factors in two groupings: rst, those that operate in school, and second, those that operate “before and
beyond school,” as Barton describes them (p. 1). Inside the School Door
It is generally accepted that students from poor and minority backgrounds are more likely to attend schools where the curriculum is weak,
teachers are ill-prepared, and the environment—if not outright dangerous—fails to support academic achievement. Jonathan Kozol's latest
book, The Shame of the Nation, documents the worst of the worst. Kozol visited schools in Los Angeles, the South Bronx, and Camden,
chronicling environments in which students attempt to learn despite crumbling buildings, overcrowding, inexperienced teachers, and
Few dispute the reality of these circumstances or nd them acceptable. A di erence of opinion arises in regard to whether the public can
expect schools to close the achievement gap on their own. Can such burdened schools be expected to reinvent their curriculum, teaching
sta , and environment alone, or does their condition “re ect economic and political realities that are mostly beyond the power of those
schools to remedy,” as some have argued (Evans, 2005, p. 583; see also Rothstein, 2004.) What about less burdened schools that also have
an achievement gap?
Several fundamental elements of schooling are generally recognized as having a major impact on student success.
Curriculum. Research indicates that academic achievement is closely related to the curriculum. Students succeed when the
curriculum is challenging, engaging, and undiluted by tracking. E ective instruction is di erentiated, exible, and provides the
support that each student needs to succeed. Students are expected to work hard, are motivated to succeed, and are provided with an
array of supports, from tutoring to extended school days to summer programs.
The academic quality of the curriculum is shaped not just by content but also by attitude and practice. Numerous studies have
demonstrated the e ect of the self-ful lling prophecy, where students expected to perform well, or badly, do so (American
Educational Research Association [AERA], 2004). Evaluations of successful schools have also found a direct connection between a
culture of high expectations and a student body that achieves at high levels (Barthe et al., 1999; Kannapel & Clements, 2005; Ragland,
Clubine, Constable, & Smith, 2002).
Common practices related to curriculum speci cally disadvantage minority and low socioeconomic students (Burris & Welner, 2005).
The traditional practice of tracking, for example, disproportionately places Hispanic and African American students in less challenging
classes. Further, black boys are referred for special education services at a high rate (Varlas, 2005). Emerging evidence indicates that
eliminating tracking entirely and o ering a challenging curriculum to all can play a major role in closing the achievement gap, as
illustrated, for example, by African American and Hispanic student achievement in the Rockville Centre School District in New York.
(See box below.)
Teacher quality. Even more important than a challenging and engaging curriculum is the classroom teacher. It has become a truism
that “the most important thing a school can do is to provide its students with good teachers” (Goldhaber, 2002, p. 52). William
Sanders and colleagues, using the Tennessee data system that tracks teachers and links them to student achievement scores over
time, have found that teachers have more in uence on student achievement than any other characteristic of schools (see, for
example, Sanders, Wright, & Horn, 1997). Similarly, an analysis of data from the UTD Texas School Project found that high quality
teachers substantially closed the achievement gap, especially for low-income primary school students (Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain,
Students attending schools that have a substantial number of poor or minority students are less likely to have highly quali ed
3/7 3/18/2019 ASCD Infobrief:The Achievement Gap: An Overview teachers. In Parsing the Achievement Gap, Barton draws on Education Trust data that show twice the rate of out-of- eld teaching in
high-poverty schools (34 percent, compared to 15 percent in low-poverty schools) and substantially higher rates of out-of- eld
teaching in high-minority schools (29 percent compared to 21 percent in low-minority schools). In addition, Barton reported that
percentages of 8th graders whose mathematics teachers are not certi ed in math are much higher for Hispanic, black, and poor
students than for white or non-poor students.
Learning Environment. A school's physical, social, and cultural environment a ects the learning of every student, as well as the work
of a school's sta . “Environment” encompasses the basics—whether students feel safe—as well as more subtle matters of respect
and expectations. Schools where students are afraid and undisciplined are not conducive to learning (Barton, 2003). The ETS report
also cites NCES data that black and Hispanic students are about twice as likely as white students to report the presence of gangs in
their schools or to report a fear of being attacked at school or on the way to school.
Other researchers have found that schools that value academic achievement and maintain an atmosphere of respect and high
expectations are most likely to value and achieve safety and discipline. They achieve this environment less by the exercise of
authoritarian discipline than through adherence to a culture of high expectations (Casey, 2000; Kannapel & Clements, 2005). Detracking to Close the Gap
The school board and superintendent of Rockville Centre School District set an ambitious goal for the suburban
New York district: 75 percent of its graduates would earn a New York State Regents Diploma by the year 2000.
Because the Regents exams that enable students to qualify for the diploma are linked to the curriculum, the district
eliminated some low-track courses and o ered instructional support classes. Although the number of students
earning Regent Diplomas increased, the district's leadership was disturbed to realize that those not earning the
diploma were more likely to be African American, Hispanic, eligible for subsidized lunch, or learning disabled.
What ensued was step-by-step progress toward entirely detracking both the middle and high schools. The rst step
was the superintendent's decision that all students would study the accelerated math curriculum previously
reserved for high achievers—and the result was a tripling of the percentage of Hispanic and African American
students passing the algebra-based Regents exam, from 23 percent to 75 percent. Detracking continued across the
middle and high schools until all students were taught the same high-track curriculum. Along the way, the district
provided instructional support classes and after-school help four afternoons a week to students having academic
di culties. The graduating class of 2003 saw 82 percent of African American and Hispanic students achieving
Regents Diplomas—a rate above the statewide average for white or Asian students—and 97 percent of white and
Asian students achieving the Regents Diploma. Beyond the School Doors: Early Development, Home, and Community
Research identi es a variety of factors likely to hinder academic achievement long before children actually enter school. At ...
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