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Some Thoughts on Measuring Achievement Gaps

Jay Mathews, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote a provocative column the other day about his distaste for using progress in narrowing achievement gaps as a metric for school improvement. "We talk about narrowing the achievement gap as if it is always a good thing, but that's not so," he wrote in his Class Struggle blog. The gap could narrow, for instance, when low-income students' scores improve but high-income students' scores don't, when low-income scores don't change but high-income scores drop, or when low-income scores drop but high-income scores drop even more. "In each of those cases of gap-narrowing," he notes, "something bad is happening." (By way of disclosure, Mathews sits on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, our parent organization.)

While Mathews' thinking may seem controversial, it's not completely off base to some of the nation's foremost gap-closing advocates. I had the opportunity last week to talk with Ron Ferguson, the Harvard University researcher who directs the school's Achievement Gap Initiative. In working with school districts around the country on this issue, Ferguson has noticed that setting up closing the achievement gap as a measurable goal for communities can be a hard sell. Sometimes that's because it seems to pit one group of parents and students against another, which can cause some bad feelings.

He doesn't suggest abandoning closing the gap as a goal, but he does have an idea for a way that districts can measure progress on that score without engendering so much local controversy. Why not calculate gap-closing improvements by comparing the achievement of African-American students or low-income kids in district schools to the state—or national—average for white or higher-income kids? That might weaken the perception that progress in narrowing gaps is coming at the expense of friends or neighbors in the same district. It's a thought.

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