Usually, when rumblings begin in Congress regarding how federal policies and spending ought to change in elementary and secondary education, we hear a fair amount of concern about achievement gaps.
If you pay any attention to analysts who track student achievement, you are familiar with this reality: As a group, white students consistently outperform their black, Hispanic and Native American peers across grade and income levels. The differences are quite striking and have persisted for decades.
Congress last got around to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka the No Child Left Behind Act, back in 2001. (The law is due for renewal every five years or so though, apparently, it has not been enough of a priority during the past half-dozen years.) Still, in the run-up to the 2001 legislation, the disparities in educational achievement among racial and income groups received as good an airing as one could hope for, what with the controversy over requirements such as reporting the performance of every identifiable group of students and deadlines and penalties for failing to raise achievement.
All in all, the national policy of breaking out and reporting test scores by student groups has proved a powerful oversight tool: First, let the record show who is straggling. And then correct.
There hasn’t been a national forum quite like it for a read on whether or not we have made progress in eliminating or — more realistically — narrowing the achievement gaps. To remind, the projection is that the minorities, now lagging in performance in classrooms, will be the face of the American majority in the very near future. One of the disappointing things about the long delay in rewriting the education law is that it has pushed into the background an issue of some importance to the nation’s future.
Which is a shame, because there is evidence of movement on achievement gaps. Last week, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its analysis of long-term trends in performance. The conclusions are based on 40 years of data in math and reading scores on federal tests for 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds.
Some of those findings should muffle, at the very least, some of the talk about the good old days when schools were schools. For instance, according to the analysis, 9- and 13-year-olds in 2012 scored higher on the NAEP tests in reading and math than students their ages did in the early 1970s.
Student achievement is improving overall, if somewhat slowly and unevenly. The younger students in 2012 posted higher scores than their 1970s counterparts. But the achievement levels for 17-year-olds in 2012 and in the ’70s were not significantly different. Even then, the 17-year-olds at the lowest performing levels scored higher than those of 40 years ago.
More a rising of the tide than a dumbing down of education, it would seem. As Congress and the White House nudge toward recasting education policies, a point worth keeping in mind is the role the No Child disclosure requirement has played in keeping an unblinking spotlight on achievement disparities, forcing into the open performance gaps once hidden under a blanket of district and schoolwide averages.
Encouraging in the NAEP trend analysis is evidence of significant narrowing of the white/black and white/Hispanic divide in academic performance over the 40-year period. In all age groups among the minority students, the gap has narrowed by several percentage points in reading and math.
But the good news is tempered. The NAEP report and similar findings in “Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color,” released in May by The Education Trust, a nonprofit education think tank, indicate the gaps have narrowed largely because gains for white students have not kept similar pace with minority gains. Further, the narrowing has been achieved more by raising the share of students at the lowest levels of proficiency, and not so much at the advanced levels of achievement, where the gaps remain substantial.
For all the gains, the sobering summation of Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, rings: “At best, students of color are just now performing at the level of white students a generation ago.” And that is reason for the national conversation to move back to center stage.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org