Rethinking The Use Of Simple Achievement Gap Measures In School Accountability Systems

Posted by on November 17, 2014

So-called achievement gaps – the differences in average test performance among student subgroups, usually defined in terms of ethnicity or income –  are important measures. They demonstrate persistent inequality of educational outcomes and economic opportunities between different members of our society.

So long as these gaps remain, it means that historically lower-performing subgroups (e.g., low-income students or ethnic minorities) are less likely to gain access to higher education, good jobs, and political voice. We should monitor these gaps; try to identify all the factors that affect them, for good and for ill; and endeavor to narrow them using every appropriate policy lever – both inside and outside of the educational system.

Achievement gaps have also, however, taken on a very different role over the past 10 or so years. The sizes of gaps, and extent of “gap closing,” are routinely used by reporters and advocates to judge the performance of schools, school districts, and states. In addition, gaps and gap trends are employed directly in formal accountability systems (e.g., states’ school grading systems), in which they are conceptualized as performance measures.

Although simple measures of the magnitude of or changes in achievement gaps are potentially very useful in several different contexts, they are poor gauges of school performance, and shouldn’t be the basis for high-stakes rewards and punishments in any accountability system. Read More »


The Global Relationship Between Classroom Content And Unequal Educational Outcomes

Posted by on July 29, 2014

Our guest author today is William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.

It is no secret that disadvantaged students are more likely to struggle in school. For decades now, public policy has focused on how to reduce the achievement gap between poorer and more affluent students. Despite numerous reform efforts, these gaps remain virtually unchanged – a fact that is deeply frustrating, and also a little confusing. It would be reasonable to assume that background inequalities would shrink over the years of schooling, but that’s not what we find. At age eighteen, rather, we find differences that are roughly the same size as we see at age six.

Does this mean that schools can’t effectively address inequality? Certainly not. I devoted a whole book to the subject, Inequality for All, in which I argued that one of the key factors driving inequality in schools is unequal opportunity to learn, or OTL.

It is very unlikely that students will learn material they are not exposed to, and there is considerable evidence that disadvantaged students are systematically tracked into classrooms with weaker content. Rather than mitigating the effects of poverty, many American schools are exacerbating them. Read More »


The Cartography Of High Expectations

Posted by on January 25, 2013

In October of last year, the education advocacy group ConnCAN published a report called “The Roadmap to Closing the Gap” in Connecticut. This report says that the state must close its large achievement gaps by 2020 – that is, within eight years – and they use to data to argue that this goal is “both possible and achievable.”

There is value in compiling data and disaggregating them by district and school. And ConnCAN, to its credit, doesn’t use this analysis as a blatant vehicle to showcase its entire policy agenda, as advocacy organizations often do. But I am compelled to comment on this report, mostly as a springboard to a larger point about expectations.

However, first things first – a couple of very quick points about the analysis. There are 60-70 pages of district-by-district data in this report, all of it portrayed as a “roadmap” to closing Connecticut’s achievement gap. But it doesn’t measure gaps and won’t close them. Read More »


Gender Pay Gaps And Educational Achievement Gaps

Posted by on June 13, 2012

There is currently an ongoing rhetorical war of sorts over the gender wage gap. One “side” makes the common argument that women earn around 75 cents on the male dollar (see here, for example).

Others assert that the gender gap is a myth, or that it is so small as to be unimportant.

Often, these types of exchanges are enough to exasperate the casual observer, and inspire claims such as “statistics can be made to say anything.” In truth, however, the controversy over the gender gap is a good example of how descriptive statistics, by themselves, say nothing. What matters is how they’re interpreted.

Moreover, the manner in which one must interpret various statistics on the gender gap applies almost perfectly to the achievement gaps that are so often mentioned in education debates. Read More »


Interpreting Achievement Gaps In New Jersey And Beyond

Posted by on February 21, 2012

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

A recent statement by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) attempts to provide an empirical justification for that state’s focus on the achievement gap – the difference in testing performance between subgroups, usually defined in terms of race or income.

Achievement gaps, which receive a great deal of public attention, are very useful in that they demonstrate the differences between student subgroups at any given point in time. This is significant, policy-relevant information, as it tells us something about the inequality of educational outcomes between the groups, which does not come through when looking at overall average scores.

Although paying attention to achievement gaps is an important priority, the NJDOE statement on the issue actually speaks directly to the fact, which is well-established and quite obvious, that one must exercise caution when interpreting these gaps, particularly over time, as measures of student performance. Read More »


Why Aren’t We Closing The Achievement Gap?

Posted by on August 11, 2010

When it comes to closing the academic achievement gap between students from lower- and higher-income families, we share the fate of Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who was sentenced to spend eternity pushing a giant rock uphill, watching it roll back down, and then repeating the task.

The gap in school performance comes “pre-installed,” as it were, beginning well before children ever step foot in the classroom. By the time they enter kindergarten, poor children are already at a huge disadvantage relative to their counterparts from high-income families. By the time they take their first standardized test, the differences in vocabulary, background knowledge, and non-cognitive skills are so large that most poor children will never overcome them – no matter what school they attend, which teachers they are assigned to, or how these teachers are evaluated. And, like Sisyphus, whatever gap-closing progress we may make with each cohort of struggling students after they enter school, we must start all over again with the next.

What can be done? Stop putting out fires and prevent them – address the achievement gap before it widens. Read More »


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