D.C. schools' performance should not be measured by focusing on achievement gap

By Jay Mathews
Monday, August 30, 2010

The D.C. mayoral race is deeply split on most issues, but everyone agrees on one thing: We must reduce the achievement gap between minority and white students. It is too bad, then, that the gap is such a mindless measure of school progress.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray says: "The achievement gap . . . really has not been reduced over the past three years irrespective of test scores. It really is an important thing." Mayor Adrian Fenty's campaign Web site endorses the gap's significance but insists the mayor has "narrowed the achievement gap by as much as 20 percent . . . from 2007 to 2009." The Post's columnist Colbert I. King says the gaps in test scores between children of the city's affluent and poor, between white and black, "go to the heart of school reform efforts."

The numbers tell another story. Here is what my colleague Bill Turque reported in his Aug. 19 story on education issues in the mayoral race: "Average math scores of white D.C. fourth-graders [on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)] grew from 262 in 2007 to 270 last year (on a scale of 500). Scores rose three points for D.C. African American students, from 209 to 212. So the gap widened from 53 points to 58."

He compared students in Ward 7, relatively low income, with the more affluent students of Ward 3 on the DC-CAS tests. "In Ward 7, reading proficiency rates for secondary students rose from 17 percent in 2007 to 28 percent in 2010 -- 11 points," he wrote. "But Ward 3's rate rose almost 13 points in that time, and the disparity between the two wards remains about 50 points."

So, nearly everyone seems to agree, math scores of black D.C. fourth-graders went up three points, reading scores of mostly black and low-income Ward 7 secondary school students went up 11 points, and somehow that's bad news. Why? Because the scores of white students and Ward 3 students went up more. If their scores had not changed, or gone down just a bit, we would all be celebrating a narrowing of the achievement gap, our favorite measure of city schools.

Here are some other dubious ways to make the gap smaller and be happy: Have no improvement in black scores but a drop in white scores, or have black scores decline but white scores go down even more. We seem to have taken our concern about the income gap in America and adopted the same vocabulary when we talk about schools, even though making more money and learning to read are very different activities. Achieving proficiency in math, and particularly in reading, is key to the futures of both black and white children, both rich ones and poor ones. Focusing on the gap encourages us to ignore or downplay the success of children in one group in favor of comparing their gains with others. Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless says this has, among other things, led us to overlook meager improvement in some groups.

Worse, it has denied recognition to hardworking minority and low-income students, and their teachers, when they score gains but don't close the gap. We know some D.C. minority children have been improving, but a large chart accompanying Turque's recent story on the gap made it impossible to determine how much. The numbers were about differences, not gains.

Why not work at raising achievement for every child, in every demographic category, instead of obsessing about the gap? I don't blame politicians or journalists for enabling this deceptive mind-set. Everyone does it. It is woven into the way we think about schools, from the president on down. But that doesn't mean it makes any sense, or that we shouldn't try to rethink school progress in a more useful way.

For more Jay, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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