July 14, 2009 -- The achievement gap in basic math and reading between black and white elementary school students has narrowed since the early 1990s, according to a new Education Department study. But progress made toward narrowing the gap appears to diminish by the time students reach middle school.
Since 1990, the achievement gap in math for fourth-graders has narrowed from 31 points down to 26 points, based on a 500-point scale. In reading, the gap has been reduced from 32 points to 27 points since 1992. The same is not true by the time students reach eighth-grade. Since the first assessments for eighth-grade math in 1990 and reading in 1998, the changes in the achievement gaps in both disciplines have been statistically insignificant.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., House Education and Labor Committee chairman, said the continued gap among eighth-grade students may be contributing to high school dropout rates. "The fact that there has been no significant closing of the achievement gap in reading for eighth-grade students is alarming," Miller said. "Research shows us that students who struggle in middle school are much more likely to drop out of high school. These students earn a million dollars less over their lifetime than high school graduates. In this economy, we simply cannot let another student face this harsh reality.
"This report offers further proof that we need to focus significantly more attention and resources on the high school dropout crisis that continues to threaten our economic strength and competitiveness. These results underscore the need to address the dropout crisis, and that means doing more on behalf of struggling students before they ever enter the doors of high school."
Overall, the new National Assessment of Educational Progress report, entitled "Achievement Gaps: How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Reading and Mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress," found that, nationally, both black and white public school students are scoring higher in both subjects than in any previous assessment, going back to 1990.
Closing The Achievement Gap
"We must, simultaneously, raise the achievement of all students, while closing gaps in achievement between different groups of students," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "This report shows that this can be done, but the progress has been too slow. The achievement gaps are still too wide, and overall achievement is too low, especially compared to other countries. We must accelerate school reforms to make sure all of our students are prepared to compete in the global marketplace."
Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment at the National Center for Education Statistics, said, "Everybody's learning, but the gap isn't closing in many of the states. It's far more difficult to narrow a gap when both groups of students are making progress."
The latest NAEP includes results from nationwide tests taken in 2007 and marks the first major Education Department report since President Barack Obama came into office. The results are likely to incite discussions about the effects of the No Child Left Behind law, which sought largely to bring up the performance of low-achieving students.
The results, broken down by state, also reflect a national shift in the achievement gap between black and white students. Whereas, historically, the discrepancies were largest in Southern states, the new report shows black students narrowing the achievement gap in these areas. "There is something to be said about some of the improvements that are happening in some of these Southern states that results in a narrowing of the gap," Carr noted.
Instead, the achievement gaps seem to be growing in Northern and Midwestern states, such as Nebraska, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, where black achievement has declined or grown more slowly than white achievement.
Warren Smith, vice president of the Washington State Board of Education and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, was hesitant to draw any conclusions about the regional distribution of the achievement gap. "There are certain things that are consistent, regardless to the geographical location," he said. "Inequitable distribution of skilled, experienced teachers, insufficient and inequitable school funding, institutional racism, and several other things and that's consistent across the board."
Achievement Report Does Not Highlight Causes
The report does not presume to infer why disparities exist in certain states. It does, however, point out that children living in poverty have lower scores.
"This report makes clear that schools matter and when schools serving children of color are primarily staffed by less experienced, less effective teachers, the effects are tragic," Duncan said. "The children most in need of great teaching to accelerate their learning are not being served adequately and, in many cases, they are being denied their civil right to an education that prepares them to graduate high school prepared for college and careers."