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September 21, 2017

Closing the achievement gap means closing the word gap

The achievement gap between low income students and their more affluent peers has been well documented and can start even when students enter their first day of kindergarten.  In the elementary school I taught at in Tulsa, OK, I saw students come in and perform below grade level on their kindergarten benchmark assessment at the beginning of the school year.  This prompted many to ask, how can students already be behind this early in their school careers.

One factor is word exposure or the number of words infants hear per day. A research study by Hart and Risley found that low income infants hear many fewer words per day than their middle and high-income peers, totaling to about a 30 million word difference by the age of three. They also found a relationship between the number of words students heard as infants and toddlers and their development of vocabulary and language skills years later.  Several other research studies have confirmed these original findings adding to the notion that word exposure in infancy and toddlerhood is an important component to closing the achievement gap.

Several states or groups have developed and tested different initiatives to address the word gap and increase awareness for parents and communities.  Providence, RI implemented the Providence Talks intervention program to help parents track their word usage around their children.  A word pedometer was clipped onto each child which counted the number of words spoken and conversation changes between the care giver and the child in both Spanish and English.  In addition, families were matched with an in-home coach that would come and go over the data gathered each week with the parent and brainstorm different ways families could expose children to more words and make everyday activities teachable moments.  This program was a success in Providence with 60% of children hearing more words at the end of the program compared to the beginning, and 97% of the parents saying they were satisfied or highly satisfied with the program.

Another intervention program was the 30 Million Words Initiative. Tested in the South Side of Chicago, the initiative also involved tracking words through a device that counts the number of words children hear.  The researchers gave each child a word tracking device and randomly selected half the participants to receive eight weekly one hour home visits to go over the data collected and for educational training sessions for families. The other half received eight weekly nutrition interventional home visits where the data from the word counter was not discussed.  The results showed that the group that participated in home visits that talked about different strategies to increase word exposure and tracked the data each week had significantly increased their talk and interaction with children.

This demonstrates the importance of in-home meetings where families are coached and can see the impact of these changes in the data from the wordometers.  The guiding philosophy of the 30 million Words Initiative states that parents are children’s first and most important teacher.  To tackle the overall achievement gap, we need to start with parents.  Real gains can be achieved if parents are given the tools to help their children gain academic success.

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Early Childhood,equity,Parents — Tags: , , , — Annie Hemphill @ 12:09 pm





July 2, 2015

Testing, opt outs and equity

Spring heralds the return of many things – tulips, bare pavement, baseball, and for millions of public schoolkids, state tests. This year, however, the inevitable proved to be largely evitable. April tulips weren’t seen until late May. Much of the country experienced a white Easter. Major league games were snowed out. And tens of thousands of students just said “no” to being tested.

To be sure, the vast majority of students took their exams as expected. New York state has by far the largest number of test refusers. Yet an analysis by the New York Times estimates that only 165,000 New York students, or about one out of every six, opted out of one or more tests in 2015. Like New York, Colorado has experienced higher than usual opt outs but 83 percent of seniors still took their exams this year.

Despite the small numbers nationwide, the opt out movement is drawing attention to the test weariness that has been settling on many public school parents, teachers and students, even among those who don’t opt out. New common core tests seem to be adding to their anxiety. By making their frustrations visible, the test refusniks are starting to influence testing policy and its place in school accountability, most notably in Congress and proposed ESEA bills currently under consideration.

So who are these opt outers? The New York Times analysis found that the movement appears to be a mostly middle-class phenomenon. According to their calculations, poor districts in New York (Free & Reduced Price Lunch > 60%) had the fewest test refusers followed by the most wealthy (FRPL < 5%). An April 2015 poll by Siena College provides some other clues by identifying racial differences in voter attitudes. While a 55 percent majority of white voters in the empire state approved of opting out, only 44 percent of black and Latino voters did.

A 2015 survey from the California Public Policy Institute identified similar racial differences in opinions about the common core. Substantial majorities of Californian Latinos, Asians and blacks expressed confidence that the new standards will “make students more college and career ready” compared to less than half of white voters.

One probable reason for these racial and class differences is the role standards and assessments have played in educational equity over the last two decades. The 1994 re-authorization of ESEA laid the foundation for what would eventually become NCLB’s test-based accountability by calling on states to “establish a framework for comprehensive, standards-based education reform for all students.”  At that time, researchers and analysts were beginning to show that the achievement gap was not just a reflection of inequitable resources but also of unequal expectations. A 1994 study from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Research, for example, found that “students in high poverty schools … who received mostly A’s in English got about the same reading score [on NAEP] as did the ‘C’ and ‘D’ students in the most affluent schools.” In math, “the ‘A’ students in the high poverty schools most closely resembled the ‘D’ students in the most affluent schools.”  In 2001, NCLB would define further measures to correct these inequities by requiring state tests that would give the public a common, external measurement for gauging whether academic standards were being implemented equally between high- and low-poverty schools.

Indeed, the civil rights community has been among the most vocal supporters of standardized tests in accountability systems. Earlier this year, a coalition of 25 civil rights organizations led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a statement of principles for ESEA reauthorization. Signatories included the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Disabilities Rights Network. Among other things, the principles call for retaining the annual testing requirements of NCLB. In May, twelve of these organizations issued another statement specifically criticizing the opt out movement, declaring:

[T]he anti-testing efforts that appear to be growing in states across the nation, like in Colorado and New York, would sabotage important data and rob us of the right to know how our students are faring. When parents ‘opt out’ of tests—even when out of protest for legitimate concerns—they’re not only making a choice for their own child, they’re inadvertently making a choice to undermine efforts to improve schools for every child.

The statement was not universally embraced. Notable civil rights leader Pedro Noguera along with the Advancement Project’s Browne Dianis and John Jackson of the Schott Foundation took exception to what they consider to be a “high-stakes, over-tested climate” for disadvantaged students. Yet their objections are not so much against tests themselves, but in how the information is used.

There is a growing consensus that the balance between assessment for improvement and assessment for accountability has become skewed toward high stakes – something many believe has a perverse effect on classroom practice. But like Mr. Noguera and his colleagues, many educators and experts also believe that standardized tests are not the problem, it’s the out-sized role they have assumed in everything from instruction to teacher evaluation. The next few months promise to launch many federal and state conversations about what a proper role for state tests should be. Ideally, it will serve ongoing improvement while assuring the public that all students are receiving the benefits of solid public education.

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Assessments,Common Core,equity,Testing — Tags: , , , , , — Patte Barth @ 1:10 pm






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