For years now, states have been reporting “academic achievement gaps” that separate students by race, ethnicity and income. Yet for all that attention, decision makers in many states may not know how big the problem really is. In some states, very low expectations of students have long masked just how far many minority and low-income youth lag behind their peers in school. Now that dozens of states are preparing to raise the bar on their tests, those achievement gaps may seem to explode overnight.
We cannot let that prospect soften our resolve to keep the bar high. Tests should tell us the truth about how our students are doing, or we’ll have little hope of giving those students the help they need.
We all know that fewer students of all backgrounds will pass state tests after states with low expectations adopt new common standards and make those tests harder. Less well known is the fact that the passing rates of low-income or minority students will probably tumble the farthest.
Here’s a quick overview of what happened in five states that recently made their math tests more rigorous or raised the scores students must earn to pass them. The tables below show achievement gaps before and after each state changed its test. (What’s an achievement gap? In this case, the white/Black achievement gap would be 10 percentage points if 50 percent of white students and 40 percent of Black students passed the state test. The “Income” gap measures the difference in passing rates between students who receive free or subsidized lunches (a common measure of low-income) and those who do not.)
Gaps in Mathematics Achievement Before and After States Raised the Bar
In most cases, the gaps grew, often dramatically, after the bar went up. There are exceptions of course,† and the changes in some states are starker than in others, but the overall pattern is striking.
So why does this matter? Since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, we have celebrated schools that have narrowed or closed gaps among different “subgroups” of students. In some states, those schools’ success might be as much an artifact of the tests as of anything else. That may come as a terrible shock as new assessments come on line. Award-winning school districts may lose some of their luster. “Blue Ribbon” schools may be dethroned. Some principals and teachers who thought they had mastered the gaps may have to reexamine their practice.
Yet this outcome shouldn’t be so shocking for anyone who has followed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which offers a consistent and reliable picture of student progress across all states. Most states have larger achievement gaps on NAEP than on their own state tests. But NAEP does not produce results for single schools or students. They have to rely on state tests for information about their progress.
Yes, this will be a very bitter pill for many schools and communities that have been working hard for equity, but the alternative is much worse. Some businesses have learned very painful lessons about what happens when their measures of performance inflate their successes and conceal their shortcomings. We’re learning similar messages in education. If state tests aren’t sensitive enough to measure real inequity, it becomes all too easy to ignore it.
* We had to estimate income-based achievement gaps in Kentucky and Virginia. Both states report proficiency rates of low-income students, but they do not report achievement gaps between students who are low income and those who are not. We estimated those achievement gaps by using U.S. Department of Education data on each state’s student enrollment, broken out by income, to estimate proficiency rates of Kentucky and Virginia students who are not low-income. That, in turn, allowed us to estimate the gaps.
† Black 8th graders in Kentucky and Michigan are the biggest exceptions here. In Michigan, however, 8th grade is an outlier. Black/white achievement gaps in 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th grades grew substantially after Michigan raised the scores required to pass the state tests.