Every major student subgroup has made progress on state reading and math exams in at least two-thirds of the states, according to a new report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP). At the same time, however, achievement gaps remain large and persistent, and at the current rate of progress, it will take most states a decade or more to close their gaps completely.
“This report shows that states can raise student achievement and can narrow achievement gaps,” said Jack Jennings, president and chief executive officer of CEP. “But it also makes clear that we need to do more. Gaps aren’t narrowing fast enough. This is not fair for the students who are behind, and it’s not good for the country.”
State Test Scores Trends through 2008–09, Part 2: Slow and Uneven Progress in Narrowing Gaps analyzes trends on state tests in reading and mathematics from 2002 through 2009 in grades four, eight, and the high school grade that is tested for proficiency as required under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The report includes data broken down by student subgroups, including African American, Asian, Latino, Native American, white, low-income, male, and female students.
Overall, the number of states with gains for every subgroup on state tests far exceeds the number of states with declines or flat-line trends. The study highlights the fact that in nearly all states, Latino and African American students made considerable progress in eighth-grade math. For example, 100 percent of states saw gains in the percentage of Latino students scoring at the proficient level, while the same was true for African Americans in 97 percent of states. However, in order for significant progress to occur in narrowing achievement gaps, the lower-achieving groups must improve at a greater rate than the higher-achieving group.
In the majority of states, percentages reported for African American students scoring proficient on state tests were 20 to 30 points lower than percentages for white students scoring proficient, the report finds. The same held true for the gaps between Native American students and white students. The achievement gaps between Latino and white students are slightly narrower with a 15 to 20 percentage-point differences. In reading, Asian and white students often performed at the similar levels, but Asian students outperformed white students in math.
The report explains that achievement gaps vary significantly from state to state. In high school reading, for example, the largest African American-white gap in any state was 40 percentage points in 2009, while the smallest gap in any state was 3 percentage points. These variations can be explained by a number of factors such as differences in states’ instructional quality, level of test difficulty, and benchmarks for proficiency.
For most student groups, achievement gaps have narrowed more often than they have widened. However, the report finds that the rate of progress in narrowing gaps fluctuates from one student group to another. In high school math, the gaps in percentages proficient between Latino and white students narrowed at a median rate of 1.2 percentage points per year across all states with sufficient data. While other gaps, such as the one between Native American and white students, are narrowing at median rates of less than 1 percentage point per year.
In analyzing data from individual states, the report finds that most achievement gaps will take at least one or more decades to close. In fourth-grade reading, Florida’s average achievement gap between African American and white students has narrowed at a yearly rate of 0.9 percentage points since 2002. In 2009, the gap was 25 percentage points. The study finds that if other key factors remain unchanged and Florida continues to make progress at this rate, it will take twenty-eight years to close the gap. In Pennsylvania, the report estimates it will take seventeen years to close the gap between Latino and white students in eighth-grade math at the current average rate of 1.5 percentage points a year.
The report is careful to note that it is unlikely that gaps will continue to narrow at a steady rate due to factors such as the adoption of tests that more sensitively measure the effects of good instruction. It also notes that the smaller a gap becomes, the more difficult it may be to close because the very lowest-performing students struggle to master more challenging knowledge and skills.
“We have got to kick up the pace; we just have to do more to help poor students, African American students, and Latino students to do better in school,” said Jennings. “This is especially important because the demography of the country is changing … so the students who are growing in proportion to the population are those who aren’t doing as well in school. We just have to pay a lot more attention to these groups because it’s a matter of justice. They should have an opportunity to do well in life and it is also a matter of economic good for the country.”