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California Scores Rise, But Gap Remains


According to test score data released today, California students have increased their ability to pass state tests so that fully half of them are proficient in English, up from 46% proficient a year ago, and 46% are proficient in Math, up from 43% a year ago.

However the achievement gap remains as wide as ever, with only 37% of African American and Latino students performing at a proficient level in English.

This does not come as any shock to most educators. For all the emphasis on closing the gap, little has really changed for these students. Teachers and students have become more accustomed to these tests, which could provide at least part of the explanation for why scores have risen for seven years in a row. But this boosts all students, not just the groups that are lagging.

The comments that followed the online article in the San Francisco Chronicle reveal a public that seems increasingly cynical about the ability of African American and Latino students to achieve. One post after another railed about the inadequate parental support, dysfunctional culture and even intellectual deficits of these students. If these comments are any indication of popular opinion, many people place the cause of the achievement gap beyond the school doors.

One thing seems clear. Eight years of "shining a bright light" on the achievement gap seems to have made very little difference. And even if we can agree that these tests are an inadequate measure of student abilities, the relatively poor achievement of African American and Latino students is still a cause for concern.

So what do you think? Why is the achievement gap so persistent? What can be done to close it?


I moced from Ca to Co recently and I have to diagree about African American culture and lack of parent involvement is related to poor test scores. All of my A.A., latino and Ell students score proficent on the state exams. I believe it is due to the fact that the budget does not allow for adequate teacher preperation in the classroom. I am not saying all Ca teachers are not prepared, however, new teachers are vastly underqualifed! This I believe is a direct relation to the under proficient scores in CA.

Heather makes a good point. The level of teacher preparation is different for students in impoverished districts. Most of the new teachers in urban districts are coming in with intern "credentials," which means they have had all of five or six weeks of preparation. I do not believe this is enough. And the low pay and tough conditions in these districts result in high turnover, which means experience and expertise is not being built up.

What do others think? Other reasons for the gap?

Just curious. I did not see the reports mentioned. Was there an economic factor used in analyzing test scores? When I taught in an inner city school in Seattle, I did not find a racial divide in my students. The biggest factor I saw was family involvement BUT also, what was the child seeing at home. Students who saw parents struggle to put food on the table and keep a roof over there heads just did not have time or energy to give the same attention to their childrens education as the families where work was less of a struggle for survival. I had families of African-American descent as well as recent immigrants from Africa, Latinos and Asian as well as white. We were in a highly mixed area and I taught special ed as a magnet program so I got a wide mix. I just don't think race is as big a determiner as poverty and all that entails. And, unfortunately, people of other races struggle more with poverty.

Teachsan alo raises an interesting question. What portion of the achievement gap can be attributed to poverty, and what portion to racial or ethnic differences? I am afraid I cannot cite the specific research off the top of my head, but there has been research done in this area. From what I recall, researchers have found that part of the achievement gap can be attributed to poverty, but a significant amount can also be attributed to ethnicity. Researchers have found that even the children of middle class or upper middle class African American and Latino students do not perform as well as white or Asian students of similar economic status.

I believe there is a high degree of alienation from the educational system for many of these students, that starts at a fairly early age. This alienation has its roots in the history of these ethnic groups in America -- and the ongoing instances of racial discrimination. I think this alienation leads students to disengage from academic learning, and seek prestige from other sources. Our challenge as educators is to create educational experiences that re-engage these students, and help them understand the value their education has in their own lives.

Anthony has a point, that racial achievement gaps still exist when you control for factors such as poverty, but as Teachsan points out the gaps are significantly lower when controlled for poverty. The bulk of the racial achievement gap can be attributed to the SES achievement gap.

There are two very different and very interesting models that are successfully addressing this gap. One is an in school model out of El Centro, Cali, where they have almost eliminated the achievement gap using by changing what and how students are taught in schools. The central feature of this program is using a strong inquiry based science program K-8 combined with literacy strategies (see Amaral, O., Garrison, L. and Klentschy, M (Summer 2002). Helping English learners increase achievement through inquiry-based science Instruction. Bilingual Research Journal). Another successful program is the Harlem Children's Zone which is a community based model that largely focuses on teaching poor and minority parents the current research around parenting techniques and brain development.

It seems to me that we have the models of what works to close the achievement gap. The problem is that they are neither cheap nor easy. They demand that we do things differently than we are currently doing them. This is not the message people want. They want the cheap and easy silver bullet that will not take change or sacrifice on their part. They want what works for middle class students who are brought up in language rich and encouraging environments to work for all kids. The one certainty is that continuing to do what has traditionally been done, only doing more of it, is not going to close the achievement gap, and that message, unfortunately, is a threat to the status quo.

I agree with Barry. We cannot simply do what we have always done and get results. One progam that has achieved success in closing the gap are methodologies based on direct instruction. These are the old programs like SRA that Englemann and Carnine used a long time ago. They are not the most creative programs but they are research based and very effective. The Morningside Academy in Seattle is a model for this and they have consulted in Chicago and elsewhere. It cost money and it requires teacher training to implement. School systems do not want to put in the time and money to cloase the gap. It is already possible because we have the teaching technology and pedagogy to do it. Shame on us!

I agree with all of the above avocates for change of curricuum and instruction in the low achievement schools. In my experience of teaching in the Chicago area, I have learned that different cultures have unique mind sets. Teaching strategies must connect with that mind set in order to be successful. I found that minority students learned best in my classroom with direct, hands-on instruction and drill. The old fashioned tried and true methods work for me. Sad to say we are not allowed to use creativity in the classroom any more and are told what to say and what materials to use. I sneak and use what works anyway. I deal with students in a way that they will understand and master the material taught. It doesn't cost much to use common sense in teaching. the better they understand, the more they will pay attention in class. I know this to be true. It takes patience, but its worth it. Also, when students fail to learn the basic tennants of a discipline, it does no good to teach over a knowledge gap. Just go back and reteach the basics. Otherwise there is no going forward. Does this make sense anyone?

What you say makes a lot of sense. We have to make sure that children are challenged to think critically and creatively, but we also have to provide some structure and make sure they are mastering skills as we move forward. It is a challenging recipe, which is why we need to invest in teachers, and make sure they have the opportunity to learn how to teach effectively.

Has anyone else noticed the paradox in these posts? I found it interesting to read posts stating that research shows both inquiry based instruction and direct instruction are successful in closing the achievement gap. These two instructional methods are poles apart, yet both seem to work. I wonder if there is another factor at play here? Any ideas?

Heidi raises a fantastic question. I think contradictions and paradoxes often lead us to new understandings.

In my teaching, I was initially drawn to open forms of inquiry. When I set out to do research in my classroom for my masters, I created about 30 different investigation kits and tried to get my middle schoolers to design their own investigations. After a few months of frustration, I learned that they needed more structure. I ended up doing what might be called guided inquiry, where I provided some structure, broke up the investigation process into separate phases, and helped the students focus on the questions they were interested in answering. I worked with them to refine their questions to make sure they were able to actually do experiments to answer them, and then gave them some guidance as they did the experiment, to make sure they were conducting careful measurement and collecting accurate data. The students still felt ownership of the experiments, because they had originated the question, and worked together to design the experiment. But they had the benefit of my guidance.

I believe the students that suffer from the achievement gap do need some structure. They need teachers who attend to gaps in their skills, because sometimes they suffer in Algebra, for example, because they never learned their times tables or how to manipulate fractions. But to me that does not mean we drill them endlessly with worksheets. It DOES mean we work on these basic skills, while at the same time we make sure their day includes real intellectual challenges, choice and activities that give them real experiences affecting the world.

As a teacher I will read the studies and study the programs where the achievement gap is being eliminated. It is my job to ensure each and every one of my students succeeds at my level and beyond. My experience has shown that Race matters in America, Race and poverty are connected, and students from all racial, ethnic, and economic levels CAN and DO achieve high levels of learning. The challenge is to KNOW my students (race, culture, learning styles, learning needs--both challenges and how to be challenged--, interests etc.), STRUCTURE the learning environment for optimal learning, and clearly KNOW WHAT I'm teaching as well as HOW best to teach it to the students who need to learn it. Teaching to the masses DOES NOT WORK. Teaching the way I best learn only works for students who learn like me. I need to know my students and make sure each one receives and achieves the learning of the essential concepts and skills.

After all is said and done what clearly remains is the basis from which any good teacher operates and it is captured by Maureen.

Barry mentions the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) "which is a community based model that largely focuses on teaching poor and minority parents the current research around parenting techniques and brain development."

HCZ provides the parents of their students parenting knowledge and skills from the parents' pregnancy onward when their children's brain connections are forming at their fastest and when strong foundations for language and reading are formed during the ages zero to five. This can eliminate many educational problems before they are formed.

Here's a cheaper alternative to the fine work HCZ does which would be so costly to replicate universally.

Why not teach brain development and parenting techniques along with relationship skills to elementary and high school students while they're in school and before they have children themselves. Much of the knowledge will then be in place in these future parents brains when they need it. It's cheaper to teach in elementary and high schools that are already established than to hire teachers and classroom space for parents. More info? preparetomorrowsparents.org.

All of the comments reflect what is largely the consensus opinion about the link between poverty and reading achievement. However, what is largely ignored is that most (80+%) of the reading achievement gap comes from what happens or doesn't during the summer months (See Alexander, Entwisle & Olson for a recent study of this). What we do know is that poor children rarely read during the summer, often even when they attend summer school. Middle-class kids do read during the summer. This difference seems largely related to easy access to books kids can and want to read. Our study of providing poor children with free, self-selected books to read during the summers shows it isn't very expensive or difficult to get most poor reading during the summers. Kim's work shows similar results. And when kids have books they want to and can read, almost all of them do read during the summer. This alone narrows the achievement gap between rich/poor kids. But how many schools put 10 books selected by the each child in their students' hands on the final day of school as summer vacation begins? How many schools have expectations that attending summer school will result in kids reading at least 10 books? We can continue to theorize about the effects of poverty or we can make sure every child from a low-income family has easy access to books they can and want to read every summer. Which will it be?

Richard talked about middle class students reading in the summer. I would like to add that middle and higher income families are more likely to provide arts and cultural experiences for the children beyond the regular school day and year. Recent research (see DANA foundation) affirms the importance of the arts and the role it plays in brain development, critical thinking, language acquisition, etc. In my community, the arts programming in public schools has suffered from budget cuts and prioritizing "teach for the test" in response to NCLB. For fourteen years I have directed an eight week summer arts apprenticeship program. The teen aged youth work with professional artists to create art which is sold and performed publicly. As a part of the creative process reading, writing and real life math skills are enhanced. Most of the apprentices are from low income families and the majority is African American. Their teachers are invited to visit the program and are amazed at their student's attentiveness, productivity and enthusiasm for learning. We often get the comment "this is what school should be like". We emphasize with the artists the critical importance in forming positive, respectful relationships with the youth. That foundation of respect forms the basis of instruction, corrections and interactions among staff and apprentices and is praised most often by the apprentices on their evaluations.

a recent conversation with my administration went like this:
a. The 'achievement gap' may be defined as the range of test scores, ability, and/or success rate between hi and lo achievers in a district, state, or county.
b. often when we implement strategies that are tried and true best practices... all learning levels may benefit a little. -- but this may not impact the gap - just raise up the hi performers, as well as the lo performers. The wideness of the gap doesn't change.
c. We are approaching the gap with test score analysis, grade level + inter-grade level + schoolwide focus. We're discussing what skill areas/ standards/ indicators impact our students curriculum-wide. -Such as writing, more exposure to nonfiction text, problem solving, making connections.
d. We're hoping 'vertical teams' of teachers per grade level will present to all of us (K-4, related arts/ED/ etc. teachers) effective info that incorporates their research and resources with strong school wide goals for their subject matter.

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