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What Does It Mean to Be a "Gap Closer?" A Look at Three Boston Charter High Schools

We hear a lot about "gap closing" schools these days, though this term often gets tossed around loosely. Consider Steven Wilson's recent report on "gap closing" Boston charter schools, in which gap closing schools are defined as, "schools that serve students of color from economically disadvantaged families and post achievement levels that rival - and sometimes exceed - suburban school districts."

Gap closing, according to Wilson, refers to proficiency rates on state tests, and herein lies the rub. It's possible for gaps to appear to be closing on state tests if we rely on proficiency levels, even as wide gaps persist when we consider average state tests scores or other measures of performance. And by thrusting these schools onto center stage and making the claim that schools - right now - are entirely eliminating disadvantage, we end up perverting the debate about what it takes to reduce inequality.

Wilson profiles three gap closing high schools - Academy of the Pacific Rim, Boston Collegiate, and the MATCH school - and reports that these schools are exceeding state passing rates on the MCAS test. Hence, they are "gap closers." Surely these schools deserve props, but we continue to see quite substantial gaps between their students and the rest of the state when we look at these schools' SAT scores. (Normal caveats on SAT scores here: Everyone does not take the SAT, but the latent claim in the "gap closing" debate is that students at these high-flying schools walk out as "college ready" as college going students from more advantaged families.)

Below, I list the combined 2007 reading/math score for these schools and a few comparison groups (See Massachusetts SAT scores and school scores here.):

* White Massachusetts students: 1061
* Massachusetts state average: 1035
* MATCH (23 test takers): 988
* Boston Collegiate (14 test takers): 964
* Academy of the Pacific Rim (34 test takers): 932

In short, we've still got a gap - kids at these gap closing schools are lagging behind their more advantaged college-going peers. The two take home points here? Beware of gap claims made based on proficiency rates, and don't count on schools - even great ones - to remedy the substantial disadvantages that have accrued over these students' lifetimes.

Image Credit: E3

A few comments- The number of Black and Hispanic students taking the 10th grade MCAS at the three charter schools mentioned is very small. The numbers are 51,8 and 34. Between 9th and 12th grade, 40% to 70% of students leave.At two of the schools, half or more of the students are not low income.

Good information.
It reminds me of the "missile gap" that got JFK elected. No doubt there is a "gap". No doubt something is being measured. But the measure does not have much to do with measuring how well the kids can have learned how to learn.

Since I am not an ed professional, I don't know the work that has been done in alternative measures that focus on learning.

Just curious, has anyone ever talked about the possibility of using IQ tests?
I think there is enough discussion about IQ tests not measuring an innate genetically determined quality. Given their long history of trying to capture "intelligence" might there not be a way to use them to see if our kids are actually getting smarter by going to school?

My take is that if teachers were incented to teach to an IQ test, some very interesting practices might emerge on the ground.

Disclosure: I work at one of the 3 schools.

I agree with Eduwonkette that proficiency on MCAS is indeed a low bar relative to college readiness. I'd add:

1. That's why our school requires each senior to take two classes at nearby Boston University, and one AP class in both junior and senior year -- precisely to expose them college rigor.

We do that because we agree with Eduwonkette that high MCAS gains over baseline simply mean the kids have departed the realm of total academic incompetence, ie, 14 year olds who can barely read and cannot do 1/2 + 1/4.

MCAS proficiency = decent (but not college-ready) skills.

2. Two points of comparison worth mentioning:

a. Boston has 3 elite exam-admission schools. The third one, O'Bryant, had average SAT score of 992.

b. The other 32 open-admission schools in Boston averaged 773 combined on math and reading.

So the 3 charter scores are almost a full standard deviation above the typical district students (SD = roughly 110 on each test).

With the giant asterisk that SAT may not be the best way to measure the remaining gap, if it's 773 versus 1061 for Massachusetts whites, then the 960-ish average is perhaps two-thirds of gap closure, one-third remaining.

That is probably why many "No Excuses" CMOs have moved to younger grades: hopes of (and preliminary success, it seems) full gap closure.

3. This is a good topic, and glad to have Eduwonkette examining it.

A Harvard economist is finishing the first-ever study tracking Boston charter lottery winners versus lottery losers. January release.

This will provide us some new insights on what gains are generated by the school (versus any sort of selection bias or student transfer), and on gap-closure.

4. Bonus pitch:

Eduwonkette, I'd love to see some journalistic exploration of the "pincer movement" facing urban schools (including charters, but particularly districts).

Superintendents are told to raise the college graduation rate (new data just coming out has Boston, like Chicago and Hartford, having almost all its high school grads fail in college).

That means raise rigor.

They're also told to hold onto every would-be dropout, including kids who never hand in any of their assignments to teachers, or even show up for class -- but get "credit recovery" and moved along.

That means lower rigor.

One thing that my district school friends tell me is that they can't learn much from charter best practices (focused on increasing rigor) when powerful political forces push principals to overrule teachers and lower the bar for passing.


I wouldn't accept as axiomatic that raising the graduation rate equals lowering the bar for passing. I would consider that to be just another foot shooting passive aggressive strategy to try to convince the world that teachers/schools cannot possibly do a better job than they are doing now until they get a better class of students.

There is some evidence that among students that drop out, a sizeable number felt bored and insufficiently challenged (this does not say that they were getting good grades and handing in all their papers). There is also some evidence that when students across the board are selected for higher rigor courses they do better.


You said "I would consider that to be just another foot shooting passive aggressive strategy to try to convince the world that teachers/schools cannot possibly do a better job than they are doing now until they get a better class of students."

Sounds exactly like a situation I've often encountered with failing business or new software , "If only we had a better class of customer, who understood our product, then . . .

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Michael Josefowicz: Margo/Mom You said "I would consider that to be just read more
  • Margo/Mom: Mike: I wouldn't accept as axiomatic that raising the graduation read more
  • Mike G: Disclosure: I work at one of the 3 schools. I read more
  • Michael Josefowicz: Good information. It reminds me of the "missile gap" that read more
  • S.RODD: A few comments- The number of Black and Hispanic students read more




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