Achievement gap analysis shows some states may be better positioned for higher scores on Race to the Top applications

Publication date: Jan 7, 2010

Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, Vermont among top states; wide gaps could spell failure for applications from Arizona, California, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island

WASHINGTON (January 7, 2010) -– As state leaders put the finishing touches on applications for federal Race to the Top (RTT) funding, many recognize that they will never achieve the excellence the Obama administration seeks without focusing their proposals squarely on equity for low-income students and students of color.

Indeed, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made it clear that these RTT grants will reward states not only for bold reforms proposed for the future but also for past progress in narrowing gaps in student achievement. But narrowing those gaps once and for all requires close, consistent monitoring not just of whether gaps are narrowing but how.

For example, one might want to congratulate Oklahoma for having a small black-white gap in eighth-grade mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But a closer look shows that the gap is among the smallest in the country because Oklahoma’s white eighth-graders—the students at the top of this gap—are among the lowest performing white students in the country. In fact, their scores are significantly higher than their white peers in just one other state. Without this additional information, would the public be able to determine whether Oklahoma’s middle schools really are on the right track?

In a report released today, ““Gauging the Gaps: A Deeper Look at Student Achievement,”” The Education Trust uses NAEP data from every state to illustrate the pitfalls in one-dimensional appraisals of gaps. The report then suggests ways to gain a more comprehensive, accurate picture of equity.

For a true understanding of the gaps in student achievement, regardless of the measure being used, educators and policymakers must examine data from at least four different perspectives:

  • SIMPLE GAP NARROWING: Have gaps in performance between student groups decreased over time?
  • PROGRESS FOR ALL: Have all groups of students gained over time?
  • GAP SIZE: What is the magnitude of the gap between groups?
  • GROUP COMPARISON ACROSS JURISDICTIONS: How does each group of students currently perform relative to their counterparts in other schools, districts, or states?

“”Failing to apply all four analyses may lead educators and policymakers to interpret data in ways that are, at best, incomplete and, at worst, wholly misleading,”” said Anna Rowan, K-12 policy analyst at The Education Trust and a coauthor of the brief. ““An honest assessment of the effectiveness of gap-closing efforts will go a long way toward ensuring that all students are well prepared for the future, especially the ones farthest behind.””

But while some states are improving at faster rates than others, none is ready to declare victory. A review of state NAEP data across all groups, subjects, and grades since 2003 shows mixed progress across the perspectives:

SIMPLE GAP NARROWING: Six states – —Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, and West Virginia – —and the District of Columbia narrowed more of the gaps between student groups than did most other states. On the other hand, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, and Washington were least likely to have closed gaps and, in fact, saw more gap widening than anywhere else in the nation.

PROGRESS FOR ALL: Student groups in Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, and the District of Columbia were more likely to have improved than their peers in other states. In contrast, student groups in Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and West Virginia were more likely to have declined.

GAP SIZE: Eight states stand out for smaller-than-average gaps: Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Five others, however – —California, Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin— – as well as the District of Columbia, have gaps between groups that are much wider than the national average.

GROUP COMPARISON ACROSS JURISDICTIONS: Low-income and minority students in Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas, and Vermont typically perform higher than such students in other states. At the same time, low-income students and students of color in Arizona, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nevada typically perform below their peers elsewhere.

Ed Trust analysts combined the results from all four of these perspectives and found four states were making the most progress. Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, and Texas emerge as frontrunners for earning top scores on the gap-closing sections of their RTT applications, along with Vermont – —a racially homogenous state that nevertheless generally performs well across the income spectrum. They differ greatly in size, diversity, and a host of other measures, but each state’s recent performance on the achievement gap is among the best in the nation.

However, an analysis of the four perspectives shows the outlook isn’t as rosy elsewhere. Arizona, California, Michigan, Mississippi, and Rhode Island have some of the worst track records in the country when it comes to closing the gap, which should net them a big goose-egg in some sections of the RTT scoring rubric.

“”These dramatic differences should be considered when determining how much state or local leaders are advancing academic equity, as well as their readiness to make progress toward overall excellence,”” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. ““We can’’t afford to let our education system fail yet another generation of young people simply because we refused to have honest, thorough conversations about where we stand or because we failed to do what’s necessary to get all students where they need to go. That’s patently unfair, and it’s patently un-American.””

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