School reform has been a top priority for
governors and other state policymakers since the mid-1980s. This
movement has enjoyed many successes, but significant challenges
In this policy primer, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices explores a key
education-policy challenge facing states today: the achievement gap.
We discuss the history and nature of this problem, state efforts to
close this gap, possible state-level strategies and solutions, and
pitfalls for policymakers to avoid.
What is the achievement gap?
The “achievement gap” is a matter of race and
class. Across the U.S., a gap in academic achievement persists
between minority and disadvantaged students and their white
counterparts. This is one of the most pressing education-policy
challenges that states currently face.
New urgency at the federal level
Recent changes in Federal education policy have put
the spotlight on the achievement gap. The No Child Left Behind
Act (NCLB) requires states to set the same performance targets
- From economically disadvantaged families
- With disabilities
- With limited English proficiency
- From all major ethnic and racial groups
Within a school, if any student subgroup
persistently fails to meet performance targets, districts must
provide public school choice and supplemental services to those
students – and eventually restructure the school's governance.
This is required even if the school performs well overall.
In other words, schools now are considered
successful only if they close the achievement gap. Many schools
are struggling to meet this benchmark.
Measuring the achievement gap
There are several ways to measure the achievement
gap. One common method is to compare academic performance
among African-American, Hispanic, and white students on standardized
Data from the National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP) shows that reading scores for 17-year-olds narrowed
dramatically for both African-American and Hispanic students from
1975 through 1988. From 1990 to 1999, however, these gaps either
remained constant or grew slightly in both reading and mathematics.
Looking at the NAEP data, the Education Trust
concluded that, “By the time [minority students] reach grade 12,
if they do so at all, minority students are about four years behind
other young people. Indeed, 17 year-old African American and Latino
students have skills in English, mathematics and science similar to
those of 13-year-old white students.”
Another way to measure the achievement gap is to
compare the highest level of educational attainment for
various groups. Here too there are gaps at all levels.
Hispanic and African-American high school students
are more likely to drop out of high school in every state. Of these
high school graduates, college matriculation rates for
African-American and Hispanic high-school students remain below
those of white high-school graduates – although they have risen in
recent years. Furthermore, of those students enrolling in college,
Hispanic and black young adults are only half as likely to earn a
college degree as white students.
Evidence of progress
Despite these challenges, several states have
demonstrated that the achievement gap can be reduced – if not
entirely closed. For instance, according to the Education Trust:
- Texas: Here, NAEP writing scores for eighth-grade
African-Americans are equal to or higher than the writing scores
of white students in seven states.
- Virginia: This state boasts one of the nation's
smallest achievement gaps between whites and Hispanics. Here,
eighth-grade Hispanic students had the highest NAEP writing
scores for Hispanic students in any state.
- Department of Defense (DOD) schools: Despite high
mobility, minority students in DOD schools do better on NAEP
than their counterparts, yielding a smaller achievement gap.
Fourth-grade white students in DOD schools outscored their
African-American counterparts by an average of 17 points on the
NAEP reading test – a considerably smaller gap than the
national average of 32 points.
What some states are doing
Several states have initiated various strategies to
alleviate the achievement gap. For instance:
- Texas: This state's accountability system requires
schools to show each year a minimum proficiency level (percent
proficient) in each student subgroup. In the five years since
this legislation was enacted, the percentage of African-American
students passing statewide exams rose by 31%, and the percentage
of Hispanic students passing the exam rose by 29%. Meanwhile,
the percentage of white students passing the exam grew by only
18%. This means the achievement gap in Texas closed by 13% and
11% for African-American and Hispanic students, respectively.
- North Carolina: Governor Michael Easley has appointed an
Education First task force to examine best practices from
high-performing schools, in order to learn how to close the
achievement gap. The goal of state education leaders is to
eliminate the achievement gap by 2010.
- Missouri: Here too, a state task force on K-16 issues
released a report early in 2002 which concluded that improving
teacher quality is the single most important factor in
eliminating the achievement gap. The report recommends raising
teacher quality through increased accountability, better
understanding of urban issues, and financial incentives for
teachers in low-performing schools.
In addition to such comprehensive strategies, states
also can take many steps within their current policies to reduce
persistent gaps in student academic achievement.
Options for further action
The next sections of this primer detail state
policy options in four key areas, describe what some states are
already doing on these fronts, and explain how state policymakers
can more effectively link these policies to the goal of closing the
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Closing the Achievement Gap
NGA Center for Best Practices
Hall of States, 444 N. Capitol St., Washington, D.C. 20001-1512
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