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Posted: 10:09 a.m. Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Next step in closing achievement gap: Moving more students beyond basic 

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Overcoming achievement gap
Overcoming achievement gap

By Maureen Downey

In a new report on narrowing the achievement gap, Education Trust concludes, "If we are going to close America’s long-standing gaps in achievement, we need not only to bring up our low-performing low income students and students of color, but also to accelerate our middle and higher performers to even higher levels of achievement."

Writing in the forward of  "Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color," Ed Trust President Kati Haycock says, "But as I journey around the country talking with educators working hard on 'closing the achievement gap,' I have come to realize that the top tiers of achievement are not the goal that most educators have in mind. Indeed, their work is mostly at the other end of the achievement spectrum: bringing the bottom kids up. Improving the knowledge and skills of our lowest performing students is hugely important, and I will never suggest otherwise.

"Far too many children —  disproportionate numbers of low-income students and students of color among them, but many white students as well — have such low reading and mathematics skills that they will be forever locked out of decent jobs and full participation in our democracy if we don’t do something different, and do it fast. We will, however, never close the achievement gaps that many are so committed to closing if we focus only on bringing the bottom students up. Simple mathematics makes that clear. If we are going to get these gaps behind us, once and for all, we have to bring our middle-achieving low-income students and students of color higher, and move our higher-end students higher still."

Here is a summary of the report from Education Trust:

Efforts to close the achievement gap have often focused solely on the lowest performing students, and results from national assessments suggest that American schools have made a lot of progress. But there hasn’t been nearly as much progress in moving low-income students and students of color to the highest level of achievement; gaps there have widened significantly in recent years. Certainly, efforts to bring the bottom students up must continue, but the nationwide effort to close long-standing gaps between groups will never succeed without a focus on students at all points on the achievement spectrum.
A new Education Trust report, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color,” examines reading and math trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, highlighting progress as well as sticking points at the low end and high end of the achievement spectrum.
Over time, the percent of students scoring at the “below basic” level of performance has declined markedly. This has been true for all groups of students, but the declines are biggest for black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Yet, while the percent of white and higher income students scoring at the “advanced” level has increased significantly in recent years, there has been little progress among students of color and low-income students, so gaps at this level have widened. Current gaps at the advanced level are substantial — and they add up. In 2011, for example, roughly 1 in 10 white fourth-graders reached advanced in math, compared to only 1 in 50 Hispanic fourth-graders and 1 in 100 black fourth-graders.
Ed Trust’s new report shows that the lack of progress in moving low-income students and students of color to the advanced level does not mean that achievement among the highest performing low-income students and students of color is not improving.  It is, and sometimes as much or more than that of the highest performing white and affluent students. But the highest achieving low-income students and students of color started considerably behind their high-performing higher income and white peers. If we want such students to be fairly represented at the advanced level of performance, schools will need to double down and accelerate their performance.
According to the report, the challenge ahead is a significant one — and it’s not just about poverty.  In some grades and subjects, higher income black students are reaching advanced at rates similar to low-income white students. For example, 3 percent of each of these groups reached advanced in fourth-grade math in 2011.   
Fortunately, some schools are already blazing a path forward.  The report highlights Elmont Memorial High School, led by Principal John Capozzi, for its efforts to not only get all students to pass state achievement tests, but also to accelerate middle and higher performers to ever higher levels of achievement. By setting data-based goals, creating individualized student plans, and pushing students to succeed, Elmont has increased the percent of its graduates attaining advanced diplomas, while also increasing its graduation rate. This high school, which serves mostly students of color, has pushed students to achievement levels well beyond those of their peers statewide.
“Educators have the power to disrupt long-standing patterns in which students get to advanced performance, and it is important to learn from schools that are doing that hard work each day,” said Christina Theokas, Ed Trust’s director of research and co-author of the report. “Schools that are successfully narrowing gaps all along the achievement spectrum and shattering expectations about what students of color and low-income students are capable of can provide a model for gap-closing approaches in other places. But there is no substitute for taking a hard, honest look at the data, setting meaningful goals for students at different levels, and raising the bar for all students — important components of a comprehensive approach to addressing equity and excellence in our classrooms.”
“Breaking the Glass Ceiling” is the first in a series of papers focused on gaps at the high end entitled “Shattering Expectations.” The next report in the series examines one of the most powerful high school strategies for producing high-end achievement — Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. The report will probe gaps in opportunity in those programs and highlight strategies that some schools are using to close those gaps.  


Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

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