Achievement gaps: Smaller is not always better

Good news! Achievement gaps are closing, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Nationwide, since the early 1990s the achievement gap between black and white public school students has narrowed at both the 4th and 8th grades in math, and at the 4th grade in reading.

Of course an achievement gap can be defined in many ways. It can be measured as the difference in test scores, in the percent of students reaching a certain benchmark (i.e. proficiency), or in graduation rates, just to name a few. In this case, the achievement gap is defined as the difference in average scores of black and white students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), also known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

Unfortunately, underlying the good news is the challenge our schools still face. Although gaps have been closing nationwide since the early 1990s, only a few states have succeeded in significantly narrowing their black-white achievement gaps. More states have been successful in math, where 15 states have narrowed gaps since 1992 at the 4th grade level, but just four states have done so at the 8th grade level. In reading, just three states at the 4th grade level have been able to narrow their achievement gap since 1992, and no state was able to do so since 1998 at the 8th grade level.

Also, keep in mind when you read about achievement gaps that smaller gaps do not necessarily mean black students are being better served. For example, West Virginia has a smaller black-white achievement gap (21 points) than Texas (29 points) in 8th grade math. However, black students in Texas outperform black students in West Virginia by 21 points (271 to 250). As a matter of fact, black students in Texas score the same as white students in West Virginia. So when evaluating the achievement of minorities in your state or district, remember one number does not tell the whole story. – Jim Hull

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