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!)