Closing the achievement gap

David L. Thomas is a member of the Utah State Board of Education, District 4. He is a former State Senator and Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Education.  

Utah State Board of Education Member Dave Thomas blogs for UtahPublicEducation.org "Closing the Achievement Gap"

Dave Thomas, Utah State Board of Education District 4.

What is the achievement gap? Seems a simple enough question, but the answer might surprise you. The achievement gap comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. There is the Caucasian v. African American achievement gap, the Caucasian v. Hispanic achievement gap, the poverty achievement gap, the male v. female achievement gap, etc. It also matters how that achievement gap is being measured and by what testing methodology. Hence, when someone talks about the achievement gap without providing more details, they are not really saying anything useful.

Consequently, when a recent report by the Salt Lake Tribune, “Utah school achievement racial gap one of highest,” criticized Utah for its fourth grade achievement gap, one had to look a little harder to find out that the achievement gap it mentioned was the Caucasian v. Hispanic gap, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This is problematic because Utah has one of the smallest poverty achievement gaps in the country and so it certainly would be a surprise if they were referring to that achievement gap. It is therefore best to discuss the achievement gap within context to avoid such confusion. Below is a chart of the achievement gap as measured by a number of different testing entities on the top education states as measured by the ACT/SAT, NAEP and Education Week.

The Achievement Gap among the Top Education States ranked by Education Week, NAEP, and ACT/SATWhat jumps out at you is that most of the top education states have at least one achievement gap that is wider than the national average, just like Utah. In fact, of the top states as measured by these various organizations, Utah’s Caucasian v. Hispanic achievement gap falls right in the middle. Hence, when Utah is criticized for its achievement gap in Caucasian v. Hispanic students, one needs to look at the context of that statement – especially when the ACT and SAT achievement gaps for the same demographic indicate, by graduation, the gap is smaller than the national average.

Certainly, the demographics within each state also account for varying degrees of achievement gap, as states with larger minority populations tend to have higher achievement gaps than those with less. For example, Utah’s student population is now 17 percent Hispanic, but New Hampshire’s is only 3 percent, Vermont’s is 1 percent, and Iowa’s is 7 percent. This may account for why Utah’s gap is larger than the national average while the gap in these three states is smaller. There are exceptions, however, even to this rule of thumb. Look, for example, at Florida, which has a 25 percent Hispanic population, and Kansas, with 14 percent.

What is also often taken out of context is that one must measure the achievement gap over time to see the impact an education system is having on achievement gaps. For example, reporting an achievement gap in the fourth grade is helpful to understand that more attention is needed in grades 1 through 3. However, comparing the fourth and eighth grade achievement gaps is essential to determine whether the education system is eliminating the gap or increasing it. In Utah, this comparison shows a significant reduction in the Caucasian v. Hispanic student achievement gap, going from 12 points above the national average in the fourth grade to just four points above the national average by the eighth grade. Then by the 12th grade, as measured by the ACT and SAT, Utah is below the national average. Among the top education states, Utah’s educational system shows the most improvement in the achievement gap over time.

This is quite a different twist to the Utah education story than was reported in the Salt Lake Tribune article. Again, that’s because the achievement gap cannot be measured in a vacuum.

The achievement gap remains a complicated conundrum. It would be nice to have a quick and easy answer to closing this gap in all demographic areas. However, cultural differences and economic status play important roles, and these are not easily addressed within any school reform measure.  

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