NAEP Scores Up, But a Big Achievement Gap Remains (EdSector Archive)
The 2013 NAEP results—to some, “the nation’s report card”— came out earlier this month. These state-by-state test scores signal good news: student performance nationally and in most states continues to improve on balance, if only slightly. The District of the Columbia’s trend line is particularly heartening. Along with Tennessee, D.C. Public Schools made the largest student performance gains in the country between 2011 and 2013.
But the results also make for some not so good news: Test-score gaps between student groups are large and stubbornly persistent. On a 500-point scale, in 4th grade math, white students outperformed black students nationally by 25 points* (250 vs. 224). In Washington, D.C., the difference was 55 points (221 vs. 276); more than double the national gap.
How meaningful are these results?
Quite, since other data corroborate them. CALDER analysis for the DC-based research consortium EdCORE, used individual data from D.C.’s own tests and also found steady growth in math and reading from 2006-07 to 2010-11 for all student groups and for all eight wards of the city. But here, too, performance gaps among student groups were large and persistent. Seventy-eight percent of students (up from 72 percent in 2006-07) in affluent Ward 3 scored at or above proficient on city reading tests in 2010-11, compared to only 31 percent of students (up from 24 percent in 2006-07) in low-income Ward 8.
What should policymakers do? On one hand, all student groups in D.C. are making good progress so the best prescription for teachers and schools might be “more of the same.” That means continuing to hark to higher academic standards, offering pre-K to all students, and investing heavily in teacher recruitment, salaries, and development.
In this mix, the smartest money may be on early childhood programs. Under the theory that “learning begets learning,” early education investments pay off early and often. D.C. public schools are there, with a preschool seat for every student who wants it.
Research confirms that teachers are schools’ most important contributor to student achievement. Again, D.C. Public Schools are there. A 2013 CALDER study found teacher performance incentives in D.C. prompted low-performing teachers to leave and high-performing teachers to stay and get even better. And CALDER studies of teacher impact showed that effective teachers retain their edge, regardless of whether they are serving advantaged or disadvantaged students. So incentives for high-performing teachers to move to schools serving needy students could help reduce the achievement gap.
Higher standards also matter. Again, D.C. is there. It has adopted the Common Core State Standards, the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) joint initiative to raise the level and relevance of education standards state-by-state.
But here’s the rub: Good teaching, good schools, and high standards by themselves can’t wipe out the achievement gap. Students’ backgrounds are even more important than students’ teachers. Students learn a lot at home and from their neighborhoods, but what they learn depends on factors such as their parents’ educations and involvement and community support for students and schools. Students from poor families simply have fewer learning opportunities. They may need extra support in numerous supplemental areas to compete with their more advantaged peers, especially by the upper grades. Along with preschool programs and stronger teachers, more focused tutoring and mentoring in well-developed after-school programs could help bridge that gap. And summer programs that open disadvantaged students to the wider world could inform and motivate students.
In short, we know much about how to make schools better, but there are limits to what schools alone can do. Closing performance gaps requires both “more of same” in schools on sharp upward trajectories, as well as a wider network of expertise, organizations, and services to fan the fires of learning outside classrooms and schools.
*This number is unrounded, as reported by NCES.