Tag Archives: achievement gap

NAEP? Nope: Why (Almost) Everyone Will Misread (Again) Data on Gaps

Let the data orgy begin!

NAEP data have been released and I anticipate almost as much time and money will be wasted on the data as has been wasted on administering the tests, scoring the tests, and creating the handy web link to all that data—notably the predictable link to gaps. [For the record, most of these data charts can be prepared without any child ever taking tests; just use the socioeconomic data on each child and extrapolate.]

Take a moment and scroll through the gray space between myriad groups in both math and reading.

There, enjoy it?

While you’re at it, look at the historical gaps between males and females in the SAT.

Males on average outscore females in reading and math (though females outscore males in writing, the one section of the SAT that doesn’t count for anything anywhere, hmmmm).

The problem, of course, is that standardized test data are simply metrics for social conditions that we pretend are measures of learning and teaching.

It is a particularly nasty game, but it seems few are going to stop playing any time soon. “Achievement gap”* has now ascended to the point of being classified as a subset of Tourette syndrome among politicians and education reformers.

The problems with persisting to lament achievement gaps and then address those gaps with new standards and more testing are that the solutions both primarily measure those gaps and contribute to them:

  • Standardized testing remains biased by class, race, and gender.
  • Standardized test scores remain mostly a reflection of any child’s home (from about 60% to as much as 86%).
  • School and classes students take are more often than not a reflection of the community and homes children are born into; thus, school/learning quality is determined by a child’s socioeconomic status, but those schools do not change that status.
  • If affluent children and impoverished children are provided equal learning opportunities (which they are not), the gap cannot close (go back and look at the handy NAEP charts on gaps, by the way).

The short point is something different has to be done in both the lives and schools of children in poverty (as well as racial and language subgroups overrepresented in poverty) if those data-point gaps are ever going to be reduced.

David Berliner (2013) is illustrative of what those differences should entail, using PISA data often instrumental in ranking educational quality of countries:

Let me look at inequality and schooling internationally: Do countries with greater income inequality generally do worse on achievement tests than countries where income inequality and poverty is lower? The answer is yes (Condron, 2011). Larger income disparities within a nation are associated with lower scores on international tests of achievement. For example, on the 2006 mathematics tests of the Program on International Student Achievement, with a mean score near 500, Finland scored above all other nations (548), and substantially beat the United States of America (474). But Finland is a country with low inequality and a very low childhood poverty rate. But suppose that Finland had the same rate of childhood poverty as the United States of America, and the United States of America had the same rate of childhood poverty as Finland. What might the scores of these two nations be like then? If one statistically adjusted each nation’s scores using the poverty rate of the other, then Finland’s score is predicted to be 487, a long way from the top position it had attained. The score for the United States of America would have been 509, quite a bit better than it actually did. Clearly, inequality within a nation matters. If large numbers of youth in a nation are poor, then achievement test scores are likely to be lower. If there were a reduction in the poverty rate of a nations’ youth, achievement scores are likely to go up….

To those who say that poverty will always exist, it is important to remember that many Northern European countries such as Norway and Finland have virtually wiped out childhood poverty. (pp. 205, 208)

Thus, if we are bound and determined to persist in our fetish for test scores and remain committed to raising test scores (instead of actually alleviating inequity or providing all children with wonderful and rich school days that would end in learning and happiness), guess what?

We need to do something different than what we have been doing for thirty-plus years!

First, end the standards-testing rat race.

Second, end childhood poverty.


David C. Berliner (2013) Inequality, Poverty, and the Socialization of America’s Youth for the Responsibilities of Citizenship, Theory Into Practice, 52:3, 203-209, DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2013.804314

* Please see my series on “achievement gaps”:

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 1

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 2


Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 2

[NOTE: I am reposting two pieces from Daily Kos (June 26, 2011, and April 29, 2012) to address the issue of achievement gaps, which I consider a misnomer for the equity gap.]

Bi-partisan Failure: Misreading Education “Gaps”

It took about twenty years, and then another secondary ten years, but the hysterical and misleading A Nation at Risk under the Reagan administration successfully kicked off three decades of public school accountability.

In the beginning, the hysteria revolved around several points that were factually inaccurate, but publicly effective: (1) U.S. public schools were failing, (2) U.S. students were weak, and possibly lazy, but their schools didn’t do much to challenge them, and (3) because of this cycle of lazy students in failing schools, U.S. international competitiveness was in dire straits.

These claims and the discourse grew from the White House and became recurrent and unquestioned talking points in the media, among the public, and by politicians. At first, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public education built state-based standards and testing cycles that targeted primarily students (best typified by the exit exams designed to hold students accountable and insure the value of the high school diploma) and then gradually the schools themselves with the rise of school report cards.

The initial twenty-year cycle of state-based school accountability also spawned governors as education reformers—most notably the fraudulent Texas Miracle during George W. Bush’s tenure in Texas that helped bolster his run for the White House. Bush as education governor became education president and brought Rod Paige along as Secretary of Education to convert the Texas Miracle into a federal version of the state-based accountability movement, now popularly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In 2012, two important aspects of NCLB are worth considering: (1) NCLB has been repeatedly praised as a bi-partisan effort, but we rarely consider that bi-partisanship by itself doesn’t insure quality (and in education, we have ample evidence bi-partisanship is evidence of failure), and (2) NCLB has also been credited for raising national awareness of the achievement gap, but this second point is evidence of why the bi-partisanship is proof of political failure about education reform.

Misreading Education “Gaps”

The single greatest bi-partisan success of NCLB, the argument has been, is that the federal government began forcing all schools to address the achievement gaps among subgroups of students, impacting significantly how schools identified, tested, and displayed test data related to English language learners, African American students, and special needs students.

Here, though, the use of the term “achievement gap” has never been challenged or examined for what agenda it fulfills or how it positions our entire national view of students, teachers, and schools.

Like the “no excuses” mantra “poverty is not destiny,” the use of “achievement gap” redirects the focus on the tests themselves, the students as agents of the test data, and the teachers as agents of the students as test takers. Again, just as the “no excuses” mantras accomplish, “achievement gap” creates a myopic view of agency—the rugged individual—that decontextualizes children from their lives outside of schools and students, teachers, and schools from the society and communities in which they exist.

The dynamic created by NCLB’s focus on the achievement gap (including federal funding to support addressing that gap) revealed to the public that such gaps exist—although anyone working in education or examining test data throughout the twentieth century knows that standardized scores have always been and remain most strongly correlated to the exact characteristics used to identify subgroups of students (language proficiency, parental income, parental education level, race, gender). By situating the accountability movement within schools and focusing the process on test scores, the public and political conclusions drawn from the identified achievement gap included that, once again, schools were failing, but resulted in a new claim that teachers were the primary cause of that failure.

The achievement gap, then, serves the interests of the “no excuses” reform movement that is determined to discount the influence of poverty on the lives of children and their learning—not the interests of these children or families trapped in the growing plight of poverty in the U.S., and not universal public education as a mechanism of democracy and human empowerment.

Instead of referring to and addressing the achievement gap, I have recommended focusing on the “equity gap”—a terminology that contextualizes where “achievement gap” decontextualizes.

Acknowledging and addressing the equity gap recognizes that student test data are markers for a complex matrix of conditions—not simply the effort or aptitude of students, not the quality or effort of their teachers.

Equally viable as an alternative to “achievement gap” is Charlotte Carter-Wall’s examination of the attainment gap in a new study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)—The Role of aspirations, attitudes and behaviour in closing the educational attainment gap.

This report, building on previous studies by JRF (see the references provided by Carter-Wall), provides a key finding that challenges arguments that children and the families living in poverty embody attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that cause the poor test scores of those students. This is powerful since it runs counter to the rugged individualism assumptions underlying “no excuses” reforms.

The JRF study helps clarify Berliner’s research showing that out-of-school factors overwhelm in-school factors in terms of student outcomes. As well, Barton and Coley (20072009) have established similar evidence that couches the “achievement gap” in the broader social, community, and home characteristics that “no excuses” reformers and politicans tend to ignore or discount.

Linda Darling-Hammond has also challenged the validity of “no excuses” reform perpetuated by addressing the “achievement gap”:

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns….

These issues were vividly illustrated in last week’s Capitol Hill briefing on the impact of poverty on education and what we can do about it. Sponsored jointly by the Broader Bolder Approach to Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the panel got beyond the increasingly implausible “no excuses” rhetoric, using new evidence to examine the relationship between income and educational outcomes — as well as about strategies that have succeeded in reducing this relationship.

NCLB must not be praised as a bi-partisan watershed moment when the U.S. exposed and confronted the achievement gap. Instead we must acknowledge that the term “achievement gap” works to mask and even ignore the corrosive influence of poverty on the lives and learning of children.

Our political and public discourse must turn to confronting and changing the equity gap, the attainment gap, and the income gap, since these all recognize the full context of both living and learning in either poverty or affluence.

But what of the most recent claims of teacher quality even if we move to these new terms and understandings?

Teacher Quality and the Attainment Gap

A Nation at Risk created and fueled a series of inaccurate claims about students and schools in the U.S., but one of the most powerful and misleading recent additions to those claims has been the assault on the “bad” teacher. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee—among many others—have stated and repeated that teachers are the most important factor in the learning of children. Again similar to responses to the achievement gap, claims about teachers have been primarily allowed without full or critical challenges in the media or the public. Briefly, then, consider these inaccurate and conflicting claims currently being posed about teacher quality as it impacts student learning:

• “No excuses” reformers make two conflicting claims: Teachers are the most important element in student learning, but bad teachers are the sole reason our schools have historically and currently failed students. These bizarre claims are compounded by another misunderstanding common in the public—that teachers can be to blame for school failure. Few political or public discussions of the role of teachers in school quality acknowledge that teachers have never and do not now run schools.

• “No excuses” reformers also call for the need to recruit the best and brightest into education while simultaneously dismantling academic freedom and due process for teachers as well as endorsing Common Core State Standards to prescribe what teachers will teacher, how they will teach that content, and that those teachers will be evaluated and fired based on tests and standards not designed or endorsed by those teachers. [Note that “no excuses” reformers depend on the achievement gap discourse decontextualizing test data from social causes in order to shift the burden of learning to the teachers.]

Reframing the achievement gap as the equity or attainment gap will be of little value unless we also reframe the discussion of teacher quality by placing that debate within the equity/attainment gap discussion. That shift must include the following:

• Teacher quality matters, but it (and school characteristics) correlates with only about 33% to as little as 14% of student outcomes. As Jim Horn explains:

So what can we do?  We can continue to improve our teaching in every way we can, even as we must begin to alter the ravaging effects of poverty and to advocate for policies that help to limit the effects the poverty.  Health care, nutrition, housing, transportation, jobs, and integrated and diverse schools that can take take advantage of the power of shared social capital.

• The “no excuses” reformers also make repeatedly another conflicting set of claims: schools are historical and current failures, but they are the mechanism by which we can change society (and that of course must be done by firing the “bad” teachers and hiring the best and brightest into what is increasing a service industry). Thus, the teacher quality debate must be framed in how it often perpetuates inequity of attainment for children since children of color, English language learners, and special needs students tend to be assigned disproportionately to new/inexperienced teachers as well as un-/under-qualified teachers—a dynamic increased by the rise of commitments to Teach for America.

If the achievement gap is a metric exposing problems the U.S. must confront, and it is, and if teacher quality matters, and it does, and if our schools are a mechanism for reforming society’s persistent scar of inequity, and they could be, the ways in which we talk about “gaps” must first be reformed so that we come to understand that living and learning in poverty is a reality of inequity for far too many children in the U.S., 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 52 weeks of each year.

Recommended Further Reading

Diane Ravitch on Texas Miracle: The Texas Miracle Revisited and 20 years later, debunking the ‘Texas Miracle’

A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City, a report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education

Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools, a report from Brookings


Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2007, September). The family: America’s smallest school. Educational Testing Service. Policy Information Center. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved 27 December 2007, from http://www.ets.org/…

Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2009). Parsing the achievement gap II. Educational Testing Service. Policy Information Center. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved 8 May 2009, fromhttp://www.ets.org/…

Berliner, David C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved 25 August 2009 from http://epicpolicy.org/…

Hirsch, D. (2007, September). Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York, North Yorkshire, UK. Retrieved 27 December 2007 fromhttp://www.jrf.org.uk/…

Klein, S. P., Hamilton, L. S., McCaffrey, D. F., & Stecher, B. M. (2000) What do test scores in Texas tell us? Issue Paper, Rand Education. Santa Monica CA: Rand Corporation. Retrieved 20 August 2009 from http://www.rand.org/…

Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006, June). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington DC: The Education Trust, Inc. Retrieved September 7, 2009, from http://www.edtrust.org/…

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 1

[NOTE: I am reposting two pieces from Daily Kos (June 26, 2011, and April 29, 2012) to address the issue of achievement gaps, which I consider a misnomer for the equity gap.]

Why the Achievement Gap Matters and Will Remain

EdWeek features a story that is a typical crisis report on education in the U.S. that has been repeated for decades, although the current crisis has expanded beyond African American students to include Hispanic students: “Study Finds Gaps Remain Large for Hispanic Students”:

While growing numbers of Hispanic students have changed the face of American education over the past two decades, the gap between them and their white classmates in math and reading remains as wide as it was in the 1990s, according to a new federal study.

The hand wringing over the White/Hispanic achievement gap, however, exposes more about the failure of political, media, and public discourse as well as current and historic patterns of education reform than about our education system.

With a little care, we can unravel the inherent flaws in both our assumptions about the achievement gap and the misguided approaches to addressing it in our schools.

First, and this is the most important aspect of the topic, the achievement gap is primarily a reflection of the equity gap that exists in the lives of children, and only secondarily a reflection of school quality and practices.

This is central to any effective commitments to addressing inequity for children, but this fact exposes why the EdWeek headline is unlikely ever to be any different as long as we persist in addressing only in-school dynamics and focus on the narrowest forms of student outcomes, test scores.

While politicians and the media misrepresent the achievement gap in order to demonize schools and teachers, we have ample evidence that addressing the whole life of the child is the only avenue to closing an achievement gap. Barton and Coley have crafted a plan to address reform targeting schools, children’s homes, and the complex mix of any child’s community and wider society.

But the political, corporate, and media elite—who are using the “achievement gap” refrain to mask their true commitments to maintaining the current status quo of privilege and inequity—reject all evidence-based calls for addressing social forces as using poverty for an excuse. Yet, the persistent result that in-school-only reform has achieved over the past half century is to ensure, as the newest report shows (just as all studies have shown), that the gap remains.

And this first point leads to a key failure in logic that is the second point: As Walt Gardner has succinctly explained: “Don’t forget that advantaged children are not standing still in the interim. They continue to benefit from travel and other enriching learning experiences. As a result, the gap will persist.”

This second point is a simple failure in logic. If we start with a solid premise (the lives of children outside of school contribute about 6080+% of measurable student outcomes), and then implement inequitable in-school policies (testing, labeling, and stratifying students in order to ask less of those labeled most in need), we should expect only one outcome—a persistent achievement gap.

Historically and currently, we pretend that test scores fairly represent learning, we pretend that schools alone determine student outcomes, we implement inequitable school policies that we label as reform addressing the gap, we pretend that lives of inequity and lives of privilege somehow pause while we implement these policies, and then we express disbelief that the achievement gap persists.

And this is the cruel irony of political and bureaucratic approaches to the achievement gap—an irony that is a damning rebuttal to the intent of the rhetoric each time a political or corporate leader speaks to that gap.

A few key shifts in both how we discuss the achievement gap and address that gap would show a genuine concern for closing that gap:

• We must replace the phrase “achievement gap” with “equity gap”—clearly expressing that many aspects of children’s lives reflect the persistent facts of privilege and inequity in our culture. Since children have little autonomy and no political power, children remain the most stark mirrors of who we are as people and a culture.

• We must address inequity in the lives of children and their families—and confront our cultural habit of masking those inequities behind our myths claiming freedom and equality for all. If we indeed embrace the ideal of human agency and equity, then we must also be willing to admit that this ideal has yet to be achieved. We have historically embraced the myth to the exclusion of confronting we have work left to be done.

• We must focus all school reform on ending traditional and bureaucratic approaches to education that perpetuate the inequity and privilege students bring to school from their lives: standardized testing that is highly correlated with students’ home characteristics, stratified courses and gate-keeping policies for those courses, inequitable teacher assignments and class sizes (privileged students sit in classrooms with the most experienced and highly qualified teachers as well as the smallest student/teacher ratios), and a community-based school resources model that allows each school to reflect the coincidence of every child’s birth to determine her/his access to education.

The political and corporate elite benefit from a constant state of education crisis because that perception allows them to point at the schools and distract us from their own failure to address the conditions of inequity that insure their privilege.

People living in poverty and trapped in a cycle of social inequity—specifically children—are not the agents of that inequity. The powerful determine the conditions of our society, and our schools reflect and maintain those conditions.

A persistent achievement gap is an accurate indictment of our schools as mechanisms of perpetuating inequity and privilege, but it is a greater indictment of the power of the cultural elite to maintain their privilege while claiming to seek equity.