Redefining the achievement gap

Highlighting test scores deflects from the real problems confronting students in American schools, educator says

As President Bush’s struggling No Child Left Behind Act heats up as a presidential campaign issue, the achievement gap in American schools continues to widen. Can we ever hope to close the racial, ethnic and economic gaps in schools? An education researcher at Washington University in St. Louis thinks it is possible — we just need to think of the achievement gap in different terms.

Garrett A. Duncan, Ph.D., assistant professor of education and of African and Afro-American Studies, both in Arts & Sciences, addressed the achievement gap among students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and different family incomes during a symposium, titled “Inequalities in Schools and Neighborhoods: St. Louis and Beyond,” held Feb. 27 at Washington University.

Recent Washington University graduate Glenn K. Davis reads to children at Ford Elementary School in St. Louis.
Recent Washington University graduate Glenn K. Davis reads to children at Ford Elementary School in St. Louis. Garrett Duncan, an education researcher at Washington University, says the achievement gap in schools, commonly defined as “the discrepancy on standardized test scores between students, with white students outperforming their black peers,” needs to be redefined.

“One of the concerns I have is how the notion of achievement gap is defined,” says Duncan, who is nationally renowned for his research on African-American adolescent development, critical educational theory, and language and literacy.

“The achievement gap, as it’s commonly defined, is the discrepancy on standardized test scores between students, with white students outperforming their black peers,” Duncan says. While disparities certainly exist, highlighting test scores deflects from the real problems confronting students in American schools, Duncan argues.

Standardized test scores can tell us only so much about actual performance standards, he says. “The problem is that many tests are not criterion based but are norm referenced. Typically, with norm-referenced tests, you are just comparing students against students. With criterion-referenced tests, you are evaluating student performance against specific achievement standards.”

“Let’s say you and I both take a norm-referenced test and you score a 10 out of 10 and I score an 8 out of 10. Eighty percent is a very good score by most people’s standards, yet there is a gap there and according to the traditional definition of achievement gap, I would need to improve.

“Or, it could be the case that I get a four out of 10 and you get a three out of 10. Focusing on the ‘gap,’ however, obscures the fact that we both may be in trouble. In any case, the nature of the testing often makes it tough to determine what students are capable or not capable of doing.”

Duncan suggests that instead of looking solely at test scores, policy-makers should look at performance standards.

“The achievement gap needs to be redefined in terms of where black kids currently are and what they are capable of doing, instead of simply comparing them to other social groups,” Duncan says. “We need specific performance criteria that are based on standards of excellence and nothing else.

“Excellence means that students attain mastery of socially recognizable academic skills — those that are recognized as excellent academic skills anywhere where the student is called upon to demonstrate them,” Duncan continues. “This is how we must address the achievement gap — not in terms of some test scores that we really haven’t wrapped our hands around.”

Performance criteria — the standards for evaluating the appropriate application of a set of skills to solve meaningful tasks or to demonstrate proficiency — are available to educators in the form of portfolios, which are excellent ways to ascertain student learning, Duncan says. “Many educators collect artifacts of what their students have done over the year as evidence of having met or approached specific performance standards. Policymakers can make these portfolios part of program quality reviews to assess schools.”

No Child Left Behind connection

There is also a strong connection between increasing interest in achievement gaps and the No Child Left Behind education reform act signed by President Bush in early 2002, Duncan says.

“The achievement gap is linked to No Child Left Behind because one of the things that the act requires is that not only must we demonstrate improvement in schools, but also that we demonstrate improvement across groups of students. We have to demonstrate that students who are traditionally marginalized and underserved by schools are improving academically as well.”

Duncan thinks there are a number of problems with how achievement is being defined in the context of No Child Left Behind’s standardized testing requirement.

“Preparing students to demonstrate high proficiency on these exams may actually come at the expense of educating them to be productive learners in high school or college settings,” he says. “You have a lot of ‘kill and drill’ instructional strategies — teaching to the actual test.

“In other cases, schools resort to a kind of triage where administrators direct assistance to those who only need a little boost to make it to the next level of proficiency while others who are too far down being given less attention.”

People who truly understand the relationship between education and promoting the achievement of minority students realize it’s not simply about a particular type of curriculum or instruction, Duncan says. “Many teachers have been able to help kids at the lower end of the achievement gap. Entire underachieving schools have been turned around in five years while retaining 85 percent of their teachers. It is possible to do,” he adds.

So what would happen if performance gaps were one day eliminated? “I think that’s a very good question,” Duncan says. “What would happen if traditionally under-performing kids began to leave schools having achieved mastery at high performance levels? Are we prepared to accept a society where kids across the board are primed and ready to become contributing citizens once they leave high school?

“Such a reality could inspire a society where we live more harmoniously given the freedom and greater range of good choices that individuals would have,” Duncan says. “At the same time, such conditions could create social conflict due to the increased competition for social and economic resources that these conditions could inspire.

“I’m optimistic that we can make it work and create a harmonius society. But at the same time, I’m patient and willing to work through minor and major setbacks in the struggle to bring about what are essentially just conditions for our children.”