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Achievement Gaps: It's All in How You Measure Them

A new report from the Education Trust suggests that measuring states' progress in closing achievement gaps among different groups of students is all in how you look at it.

Take this example from the report: On the surface, it looks like Georgia and West Virginia both made commendable progress over the last six years in narrowing the achievement gap between African-American 8th graders in their state and their higher-performing white peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test in math.

But, if you look closer, you can see there was an important difference in how each state went about it. Georgia did it by spurring achievement gains among both black and white students. In West Virginia, African-American students improved, but white students stagnated.

Obviously, it's better for everyone to make progress at the same time that gaps are narrowing, but simple measures of achievement gaps won't tell you whether that's happening, according to the report, "Gauging the Gap: A Deeper Look at Student Achievement."

For a truer measure of states' progress, the report says, policymakers and analysts ought to look at the numbers from four different perspectives: whether gaps between groups have decreased over time, whether all groups of students improved, the current size of the gaps between groups, and how each group compares with counterparts in other jurisdictions.

For instance, both Florida and Louisiana reduced the black-white gap in 4th grade math, yet Louisiana's African-American students still perform well below their Florida peers. The 10-point difference in scores for African-American between those two states equates to roughly a year's worth of learning, according to the report.

When the Education Trust researchers used all four perspectives to analyze 4th and 8th grade data from NAEP tests in reading and math, five states emerged as clear leaders: Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, and Vermont. The bottom-hugging states on the composite scale were: Arizona, California, Michigan, Mississippi, and Rhode Island.

This is no idle exercise, the advocacy group also notes. In applying for economic stimulus dollars from the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top fund, states will have to show whether they're making progress in closing achievement gaps. I'm not sure, though, whether they also have to demonstrate how they're doing it.

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