Thursday, April 14, 2011

Attacking the Achievement gap means helping students rise above their parents' education.

The early American colonists left a continent where children's' future was largely determined by their parents status in life. The children of farmers became farmers. The children of landed nobility became landed nobility. The children of artisans became artisans. And so on. The first American settlers came to America not only for political freedom, but also the freedom to rise above the economic and educational status of the parent's station. It is for this very reason, that we find in state constitutions all across the country, that the authors of those constitutions, many of them immigrants, included special protections to assure that American states would assure quality education for all children. They saw education as a key to the kind of freedom that brought them to American in the first place.

The achievement gap represents a threat to this American idea that students will surpass their parents "station in life." I've been writing about the achievement gap lately for several reasons. One of our major objectives in our school district is to implement systemic improvements that will make significant inroads on the achievement gap. In addition, a number of legislators in St. Paul have been offering up proposals, from tax credits for private schools, to the elimination of various forms of funding, based on their contentions that these reforms will somehow help eliminate the achievement gap. Most of what is written, most of what is said about the achievement gap, is founded on little but speculative belief, divorced from data, divorced from research, and divorced from evidence on what really works. I don't claim to have the answers, but I do claim to be interested in research, data, and evidence.

What is the achievement gap? What causes it? What is the "cure," as it were. Its going to take a few more posts to make a dent in that question. But one thing we can say for sure. The achievement gap does not result from a decline in the performance of minority students. It does not result from the decline in the performance of white students. The achievement gap does not result because public schools are getting worse, or because student performance is declining. On the contrary, in general students performance over the last several decades has been increasing. Here is some data summarizing the NAEP testing, the gold standard for measures of reading and math performance.


(Since 1969, NAEP assessments have been conducted periodically in reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, and other subjects. NAEP collects and reports information on student performance at the national, state, and local levels, making the assessment an integral part of our nation’s evaluation of the condition and progress of education.)

The achievement gap does not result either from a decline in in the difficulty or rigor of courses that students are taking. Actually, a recently released nationwide study, "America's High School Graduates, results of the 2009 NAEP high school transcript study," supports this point. The transcript study looked at the number of students who completed a rigorous course of study, and the number of students who completed a less rigorous "standard curriculum," and the number of students who fell below even the basic standard course of study. The study found:

  • In 2009, graduates on average earned over three credits more than their 1990 counterparts, or about 420 additional hours of instruction during their high school careers.
  • A greater percentage of 2009 graduates completed more challenging curriculum levels than 1990 or 2005 graduates.
  • Since 1990 more graduates from each racial/ethnic group completed a rigorous high school curriculum.
  • All four racial/ethnic groups on average earned more credits and higher grade point averages (GPAs) in 2009 than they did in 1990.
  • More students are taking advanced placement courses, and those students are doing significantly better as a result
  • Since 1990, the percentage of graduates completing a below standard curriculum declined from 60 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2009.
So, contrary to popular belief, we are not in the midst of a decline in student performance. Students in every ethnic/racial group are performing better today than they did in decades past. They are taking harder courses; and they are taking more courses.

What is the achievement gap, then? The definition of achievement gap is not uniformly recognized. Some people say that "the Achievement Gap is the difference in performance between low-income and minority students compared to that of their peers on standardized tests." The Department of Education The U.S. Department of Education describes the achievement gap as “the difference in academic performance between different ethnic groups.” Another definition is "The achievement gap, as it's commonly defined, is the discrepancy on standardized test scores between students, with white students outperforming their black peers..." One author writes: "The achievement gap, traditionally measured by test scores, also can be documented by dropout behavior. Examining dropout behavior among Black, White, and Hispanic students, with a particular focus on gaps within groups and not just between Whites and minorities, shows a clearer picture of the achievement gap."

Some folks measure the achievement gap by comparing the percentage of students who score proficient on certain basic skills tests, for example math and reading. The problem with that definition is that different states have radically different proficiency cut scores, and raising or lowering the cut score can change the gap, measured in that way. Another way of measuring the gap is to compare the number of students who score at the basic level or below. This is more of a functional literacy measure of the gap. And then, as mentioned above, another way of measuring the gap is the graduation gap, the number of students who drop out of school without receiving a diploma. Believe it or not, there has been a raging controversy for the last many years over how exactly to measure the graduation rate. In part, this controversy arises from whether to count students who receive their GED as graduating. In part, it arises from difficulties on how to count students who leave school, but possibly transfer to another public school and who exactly to count the failure to graduate against.
There are some people who argue with vehemence that, obviously, we should not count attainment of a GED as "graduation." That reminds me of the graduation of Adult Basic Education students I attended a couple of years back. At that graduation, we heard an eloquent speech from a Somali ABE graduate, who was attending college in the following year. He had arrived in St. Cloud on a flight from Kenya, a tenth grader, by age, speaking no English, a refugee without any formal schooling. He found, not surprisingly, that he could not function effectively in our high school, and so he "dropped out," but was able to obtain his GDE, a few years beyond the normal graduation age. Statisticians and public education critics would announce that the St. Cloud School District "failed" this young man, because he did not graduate on time, but in fact, the ABE program met his needs, and I regard him as a success story.
It is commonly argued that Minnesota is doing an extraordinarily poor job in addressing the achievement gap, as compared to other states, and that really depends upon your point of view. Minnesota's NAEP results in Mathematics (2007) for white students are higher than the national average for white students in both 8th and 4th grade. NAEP results for mathematics for black students are the basically the same as the national average. Because white students are performing above average, and black students at the average, it can be said that we have a larger achievement gap, under this measure, even though all of our students, black and white are equal to or better than the national average.

In reading, Minnesota 8th grade students scored 12 points higher than the national average in 8th grade. Black students performed 26 points below at just about the national average. Once again, that leads to the conclusion that we have a higher achievement gap for black students, even though black students are performing at the national average. In both these cases, the Minnesota's extraordinarily high achievement gap is entirely accounted for, it seems, by the fact that Minnesota white students are performing significantly above the national avererage while black Minnesota students are performing at the national average for black students.

The High School Transcript Study points out that there is a significant gap in the high school performance of students based upon whether their parents finished high school, and that nugget of information holds the key to the achievement gap, in my opinion:
Thirty-four percent of graduates with a parent who did not finish high school completed a below standard curriculum compared to twenty percent of graduates with a parent who graduated from college.
So the achievement gap, however you wish to define it, is a manifestation of the difference in performance of students highly correlated with the educational attainment of their parents. We attack the achievement gap, because we believe that it is the job of public education to allow students to overcome, to outperform the limitations of their family history and background.


Making Stuff up About the Achievement Gap
Get Ready for College
School Choice will not close the achievement gap
Some students cost more to educate (1)
Some students Cost more to educate(2)

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