I've spent a lot of sleepless nights this week working on a paper for a class at the University of Washington on the achievement gap. After pouring through hundreds of pages of research, I now have more questions than answers.
Most of my questions surround how to define the term "achievement gap." Is it aggregate MSP (Measurement of Student Progress) scores, high school completion rates or college matriculation numbers? Should the "gap" be based on income, race, gender or household makeup?
In looking at the issue do we also need to examine the measurements themselves that are used to determine whether a child/school/district/state is making "adequate yearly progress?" Is it appropriate to compare the scores of one year's group of students to another year's group of students in determining whether teachers/schools/districts are doing their jobs? Finally, at the basis of all of these questions is the over-arching issue - what does "achievement" mean for your child?
If you look at aggregate numbers provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), it would appear on the surface that students in the Seattle School District, as one example, did worse last year than the year before in most areas. For example, only 68.7 percent of those children who were third graders in the 2009/2010 school year passed the math portion of the MSP test compared with 74.1 percent for third graders in the 2008/2009 school year who took the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning).
OK. First issue - these are completely different tests.
The second issue in examining these scores is that they are scores for all third grade students. They fail to take into account that these children are made up of different genders, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.
I've broken down the numbers. Regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and socio-economic background, third graders in Seattle tested from one year to the next showed a decline on an aggregate basis. The scores don't take into account geography and other factors that contribute to lower test scores. Research shows that schools that have fewer low income students have higher scores. Studies show that children who come from low-income families/neighborhoods face a number of issues that contribute to lower test scores, i.e., poorer nutrition, less access to health care, fewer opportunities for before/after school educational assistance, etc., as well as obstacles like increased crime rates, population/density issues and less access to resources such as libraries, computer labs and, in some instances, even textbooks.
The tests are also based on completely different populations. The third graders who were tested in 2008/2009 are now fourth graders. Let's take one school as an example. I pulled up a map of the Seattle School District, closed my eyes and pointed, landing on Northgate Elementary (the closest I could come to a random selection). The graph above shows that Northgate is a school that saw an increase in third grade math scores from one year to the next (48.8 percent in 2009/2010 compared to 40 percent in 2008/2009). But when you look at trends for a single group of students, the numbers reveal their scores have actually dropped over the years. One in four fifth graders at Northgate in the 2009/2010 school year passed the math portion of the MSP. When these same students were in the third grade in the 2007/2008 school year, 43.3 percent passed - that's nearly one in two.
Finally, is it appropriate to combine the scores of all third grade classrooms, when students are taught by individual teachers - some of whom may be more experienced, or better communicators, have different teaching styles or might be better equipped at addressing individual needs? And what about individual students? Had they all had a good breakfast the day of the test? Had they had a good night's sleep? What other challenges might that child have faced before taking the standardized test, which may in itself have issues of cultural bias?
Aggregate numbers have a place in society - especially when revealing the institutional racism and class-based differences that exist in the U.S. education system. But, when we look beyond the numbers I'm still left asking, are most children being victimized by a system that focuses on the system as a whole rather than them individually? Are they each receiving the best education possible and being taught in a way that allows them to achieve at their maximum potential?