A recent study on achievement gaps has gotten a great deal of attention. But when Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews took a close look at the study to see which school district had the smallest black-white achievement gap, he was surprised to find that it was Detroit, which he calls “our nation’s worst school district, or close to it. Yet it tops this list because its white students are as poor and disadvantaged as its black and Hispanic students. It wins first prize in a weird contest that, I think, should be discontinued.”
There are several ways that narrowing achievement gaps can signal trouble, not improvement. Low-income student scores can drop while high-income student scores drop even more. Low-income scores may stay put as high-income scores decline. Low-income scores could improve while high-income scores don’t.
We should instead be looking at how each group is doing, celebrating gains and addressing declines without comparing groups with different issues. I applaud programs that raise achievement for low-income and minority students, but also note that our best-performing students have sometimes not made the same progress. There shouldn’t be a ceiling on achievement.
An article by Roland Fryer and Steve Levitt that was published in Education Next in 2004 took a close look at the causes of the black-white test score gap. They found that
after adjusting the data for the effects of only a few observable characteristics, the black-white test-score gap in math and reading for students entering kindergarten essentially disappeared. Put simply, white and black children with similar personal and family background characteristics achieved similar test scores.
However, they found that the achievement gap expands as students grow older. The authors investigate several hypotheses for why this might be.