Forget About the Achievement Gap

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008; 6:17 AM

I don't like talking about the achievement gap. The term has several meanings, none very useful to my mind. There is often a strained silence when I bring this up, since it sounds like I am on some crotchety rant against political correctness. But that is not what I mean. Thankfully, a new study is making my point for me, courtesy of Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless.

The achievement gap is usually defined as the difference in average test scores between students from affluent families and those from low-income families. Scholars also refer to achievement gaps between white and black students, or between Asian and white students on one side and black and Hispanic students on the other. But the data indicate family income and culture are more influential than ethnicity. Children born into poverty generally achieve much less in school than children born into the middle or upper classes.

Why don't I like talking about the achievement gap? Because we use the term in a way that suggests narrowing the gap is always a good thing, when that is not so. Here are some ways the gap could narrow: Low-income scores improve but high-incomes scores don't; low-income scores don't change but high-income scores drop; low-income scores drop but high-income scores drop even more. In each of those cases of gap-narrowing, something bad is happening.

In his analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Loveless finds that a gap is narrowing because the scores of low-performing students are rising significantly but the scores of high-performing students are either flat or not rising much.

His findings are included in a new report, "High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind," by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Loveless and the Fordham experts focus more on the relatively slow progress of those high achievers than the wrong-headedness of the achievement gap concept, but they seem to acknowledge the two issues are related.

"The narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment," Loveless writes, should not "overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students." He adds: "Their test scores are not being harmed during the NCLB era, but they are not flourishing either. Gaps are narrowing because the gains of low-achieving students are outstripping those of high achievers by a factor of two or three to one. The nation has a strong interest in developing the talents of its best students to their fullest to foster the kind of growth at the top end of the achievement distribution that has been occurring at the bottom end."

My theory is that we have unconsciously taken our concern about the income gap -- a lively issue in the last several years -- and adopted the same vocabulary when we worry about how our children are doing in school, even though making money and learning to read, write and do math are different enterprises. I can understand distaste for people who build 50-room mansions with gold bathroom fixtures. But can anyone learn too much? Wisdom tends to help everyone who comes in contact with it. Ski chalets in Aspen are less useful to those of us who can't afford them.

As usual, Loveless exposes intriguing relationships in the data that suggest better ways to treat the learning gap. He looks closely at high achievers and finds those who are black, Hispanic or low-income have different characteristics from their white, high-income peers. Their schools are less likely to have the algebra courses that they are ready to take. But interestingly, their math teachers "appear as qualified to teach advanced courses as the teachers of high achievers as a whole," Loveless writes.

How can the high achievers rise as rapidly as the low achievers? Loveless suggests that Congress fund an experiment, as part of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, to follow these students more carefully and create new opportunities, particularly for those who are disadvantaged. Rewards could be offered for improving the performance of those in already-high-achieving groups. Data could be collected and analyzed.

While we are at it, why not curtail all this achievement-gap talk? Let's focus instead on the progress of every child, no matter if she or he starts the year two grades behind classmates or two grades ahead. All children deserve a chance to climb as high as they can.

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