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ARE ACHIEVEMENT GAPS CLOSING AND IS ACHIEVEMENT RISING FOR ALL?: Report Finds State Progress is Evident but Lacking at the High School Level

"The good news from this study is that, overall states have made progress in closing achievement gaps."

Although achievement gaps between subgroups have narrowed in most states at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, the least amount of progress has been made at the high school level. So says Are Achievement Gaps Closing and Is Achievement Rising for All?, a new report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP), which was released on October 1. The report, the third in a multi-year study, evaluates how minority and low-income students have progressed on the state tests mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as compared to their white and non-low-income peers.

“The good news from this study is that, overall states have made progress in closing achievement gaps”, said Jack Jennings, president and chief executive officer of CEP. “However, now is not the time to let up. There is still much work to be done.”

In its analysis, CEP examined fourth-grade state tests results at three achievement levels (basic and above basic, proficient and above proficient, and advanced) for six student subgroups (African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, white, and low-income). It found more gains than declines at all three achievement levels. For example, 86 percent of states with available data saw a gain in the percentage of African American fourth graders who scored at proficient or above in reading, compared to 14 percent that saw a decline. Among low-income fourth graders, thirty-three of the forty-three states with available data (77 percent) saw an increase in the percentage of students scoring proficient or above.

In math, the results for student subgroups were even more positive. For example, 95 percent of states with available data saw an increase in the percentage of Latino fourth graders who scored proficient or better while 89 percent of states enjoyed the same result for their African American students.

CEP also examined the gaps between subgroups in the percentages of students who scored at or above the proficient level at three grade levels (grade four, grade eight in most states, and a high school grade). Between 2002 and 2008, the report finds that the achievement gaps for minority and low-income students have narrowed across all grade levels and subjects in 74 percent of the categories studied, while the achievement gap widened in 23 percent of the categories.

At both the elementary and middle school levels, the number of states that narrowed the achievement gap was much larger than the number of states that experienced a widening of the gap. In middle school reading, for example, thirty of thirty-five states with available data saw a narrowing of the achievement gap between African American and white students, as indicated in the table below.

Middle School Achievement Gaps in Reading


African American and White

Latino and White

Native American and White

Low-Income and Non-Low-Income

Total Trend Lines

States in which gap narrowed






States with no change in gap






States in which gap widened






States with sufficient trend data







The results at the high school level are less compelling, but, as the report notes, these findings were complicated by the large number of states that lacked sufficient high school level data to submit. One reason is the fact that some states use end-of-course exams at the high school level. “For instance, [states] may administer multiple math exams in Algebra I, Algebra II, and geometry that individual students take at different grades after they complete the appropriate course,” the report notes. “When [CEP] asked state officials to select the most appropriate test to capture high school performance trends, some were unwilling or unable to do so.”

Where gaps have narrowed, they have typically done so because the achievement of lower-performing subgroups has gone up rather than because the achievement of higher-performing subgroups has gone down, the report finds. Additionally, it finds that gaps narrowed more often for the Latino and African American subgroups than for other subgroups.

Even with this progress, however, the gaps between subgroups often remained large-upwards of twenty percentage points in many cases, according to the report. Generally, CEP found the largest gaps in high school math and the smallest in elementary school math. Overall, the average gaps in percentages of students achieving proficiency across states were largest for African American students. “In high school math, for example, the mean (average) percentage proficient was 45 percent for the African American subgroup and 74 percent for the white subgroup, resulting in a black-white gap of 29 percentage points,” the report notes. “The high school math gaps were 22 to 23 percentage points for Latinos, Native Americans, and low-income students.”

CEP expressed concern at the 23 percent of state trend lines that showed a widening of the achievement gaps. Specifically, it noted that the percentage proficient gap between low-income and non-low-income students in high school math increased in ten out of thirty-three states with sufficient data. However, it was unable to determine any patterns among states with widening gaps. “For the most part, instances of gaps widening were scattered throughout the states rather than concentrated in certain states,” the report reads. “Usually, most of [the] gaps in a state narrowed except for one or two instances.”

The complete report is available at

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