Monday, October 05, 2009

Is "a widening gap" always a problem?

One of the major goals of No Child Left Behind, and the accountability movement in general, is to "close the achievement gap" between more-advantaged and less-advantaged students. It currently remains true in this country that children from poor or minority backgrounds tend to score lower on standardized tests, and to graduate at lower rates than white or more affluent students. Many people worry that such a gap will translate into reduced opportunities for disadvantaged young people later on. And so, education policy makers closely watch test results to see if the achievement gap is narrowing.

Now, data from the Center for Education Policy, written about in Education Week, show that in most states and in most cases, the gap is getting smaller. But as we achieve this goal, I think it's important to keep in mind that a narrowing gap is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself.

First, the easiest way to narrow the gap is to have more advantaged students suddenly do worse. If the average disadvantaged 4th grader is performing at a 3rd grade level, and the average more-advantaged 4th grader is performing at a 5th grade level, and you knock this down to the 4th grade level, you would have cut the achievement gap in half. But this would hardly be cause for celebration (one hopes). Fortunately, the Center for Education Policy data do not show that happening. In most cases, more-advantaged students seem to be making some progress, with disadvantaged students making more rapid progress.

Interestingly, though, in the roughly quarter of analyzed cases in which the achievement gap is widening, it does not appear to be because disadvantaged students are falling behind. They are making some progress, but more advantaged students are making more progress. In other words, everyone is still doing better. As Jack Jennings, the Center for Education Policy's president put it, all boats are "rising with the tide."

This raises questions. In these cases, the achievement gap is clearly widening. This is generally viewed as a bad thing. And yet everyone is doing better -- which tends to sound like a good thing.

So which is it?

I guess it depends on whether you view higher education opportunities, and the job market as fully competitive or as benefiting from rising skill levels in general. I think it's a bit of both. Getting into Harvard is competitive; there are only so many slots. But a million more students could graduate from high school college ready, and I bet there would, soon enough, be higher education slots somewhere to absorb them. Any given job opportunity is, of course, competitive; no business has an unlimited payroll. But in general, the more students who have solid math, reasoning, reading and writing skills, the better off our economy will be as these young people make productivity gains for their employers or start their own businesses.

So, in general, I'm of the opinion that as long as everyone is doing better, the actual gap is not worth fixating upon. But we shall see if that's the headline that comes out of these results.

On a personal note, we're on a bit of a lighter blogging schedule here at Gifted Exchange as I'm busy with the newest addition to my family, Samuel Dwight Conway. He was born on September 24, was discharged from the hospital at a sturdy 8lbs 8oz and is winning all of us over quickly-- even big brother Jasper! I'm still always looking for ideas for posts, though, so please send them along. (If you'd like to see photos, and you're on Facebook, just send me a friend request!)


Kevin said...

The "rising tide" theory is a bit dubious---most of the tests where everyone is doing better are actually just a lowering of the standards, not real improvement.

Katharine Beals said...

I agree that narrowing the gap is a dubious goal. Case in point: last year, a parent and I started a Continental Math League club for mathematically gifted students. The principal ultimately complained that that this club was widening the school's achievement gap, and insisted that, next time around, we admit students on a first-come, first-served basis. (I blog about the details at:

Anonymous said...

Katharine Beals, my county opened its first magnet middle school for advanced science and math a few years ago. I had a child in the right age group who was profoundly gifted in math and science. A perfect match, right?

No, the county insisted that all applications had to be considered...including Special Ed kids whose parents wanted them in a smaller school. That meant the charter magnet school had to run a lottery, and by random chance, a huge number of Special Ed students were admitted, meaning they had to water down the advanced curriculum to accomodate the special-ed kids. Nifty, right?!? So, what's the point of having this special school if they're not allowed to offer advanced classes?

Anonymous said...

Even though this post is almost 6 months old I had to comment on it. I have been viewing your blog and although I have 3 year old twins who based on characteristics would be categorized as “gifted” this post here is why I simply hate a lot of what the term and thought process that goes behind it. The problem with this concept of it is okay for a widening of the gap is that it is only okay if you are on top of the gap. It is only okay if you have all of the resources that are necessary that you make continuous leaps and bounds in academic achievement. It assumes that all parents who love, care and want the best for their children know *how* to ensure that that love and care gets translated into success through higher education or even completion of an education. It assumes that all children, even the ones who are least likely to garnish the passing glance have a way of being identified as gifted and not placed in classes that will atrophy those gifts over time because, well, they (1) don’t look gifted (read middle class white) and (2) aren’t politically astute to know how to enrich and test prep at home. It assumes that environment plays no part in intelligence and it assumes that it is okay to have a permanent underclass of black, brown, and immigrant workers to serve you food, wash your car and clean your house. I am sorry, but your privilege is showing.