Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reframing and Rethinking the "Achievement Gap" in Standardized Tests

In today's Olympian, I was startled to read that "Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn...would be meeting with legislative leaders within the next few months to start making plans for tackling the issues of test scores, the achievement gap among different ethnic groups and graduation rates." What bothers me here is the linkage of test scores to ethnicity in a way that gives ethnicity the appearance of somehow having a causal effect on test performance.

If this were true, there would not be much that could be done about it. In fact, treating this as though it were true allows us, unfairly, to say that there is something about being black or Hispanic that causes poor test results. The reality is that race and ethnicity are not really valid predictors of test results, whereas parental education and household income are. Family income and education are clearly—and even linearly—correlated with student achievement in school and on standardized tests.

When we focus on race/ethnicity as a basis for test performance, we EITHER 1) allow ourselves to believe that the resulting "gap" is not really resolvable, because it is not possible to turn a black child into a white one, or a Native child into an Asian one, OR 2) we focus our "gap" remediation efforts on children who happen to fall into certain racial categories (regardless of family education, household income, or the individual student's performance), when we should instead be focusing our remediation efforts on children who are not performing well, regardless of race.

If you analyze these two approaches, it is easy to see that the first approach (viewing race as a condition that is not "remediable") is 1) racist, 2) likely to be ineffective, and 3) misses the real point, and that the second approach (directing remediation efforts towards students of certain races) is 1) racist, 2) likely to be ineffective, and 3) misses the real point, also.

Granted, it may not be in the Superintendent's power to modify the household income or parent education level of each child, either, but he should still understand that these have far more to do with student achievement than a child's race or ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are only predictors to the extent that they correlate with family education and income, something which, as society becomes less racist, becomes less valid. However, as long as we make the racist assumption, however unconsciously, that "poor children" are one and the same thing as "minority children," or that "low-performing students" are one and the same as "minority students," we will continue to miss the real point, continue to have a ready excuse for why the "gap" is basically unresolvable (What can we really do, or be expected to do, about a child's race? Nothing!), and continue to address the wrong issue, the supposed "(racial/ethnic) achievement gap," instead of the very real gap between students from disadvantaged backgrounds/districts/schools and students who have all the advantages to help them succeed.

Please focus on supporting disadvantaged, low-performing students—regardless of race/ethnicity. This approach will make the problem solvable, because it frames it in a way that something can be done about it; namely, everyone involved in education in this state needs to direct more resources and support to those students with fewer resources (in any school, rich or poor), in order to help them have the kind of educational success that is almost a given for students who have more advantages.

Thank you.

Chris Marquardt

Other interesting information:


Calfee showed graphs documenting that student achievement on the API dipped in direct proportion to the number of teachers in the school working on "emergency" credentials, essentially a district waiver for teachers who do not yet have the appropriate credential for their assignment. The correlation was just as strong as that between low test scores and poverty, and high test scores and high parent education levels, Calfee said.

California's Class size reduction program, which in July 1997 dropped lower elementary grades to 20 students per teacher, has not yet shown marked gains in student achievement for the Inland Empire, Calfee said, citing research done by the California Educational Research Cooperative at UCR. Since the class size reduction program required the hiring of so many new teachers all at once, it actually may have put more inexperienced teachers in direct contact with students, and thus counter balanced most of the expected benefits of smaller classes.

You may also be interested in this Atlantic Monthly article on the characteristics of the best teachers (from the Teach for America study):