Student Achievement Gap
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RAY SUAREZ: There is a growing achievement gap in math and reading among grade school students. According to a report released yesterday by the National Education Goals Panel, reading and math skills improved slightly during the 1990s, but the gap between the best- and worst-performing students also grew. The seven-year study showed that the best students in 16 states seem to be improving, while the worst students are losing ground. We get more details now from Emily Wurtz, the acting executive director of the panel.
And they call this report the “Report Card”. What kind of report card did we get?
EMILY WURTZ: Well it was a mixed report card, as you said, Ray. In mathematics, the news is actually very good. The National Education Goals Panel was established by former President Bush and is made up of public officials, primarily governors and state legislators, and they’re trying to get an honest, objective set of evidence as to whether the efforts of the last ten years to improve student achievement have succeeded. So the goals panel did a special analysis of information from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and we looked, as you reported, at how students in each of the states that took reading at the fourth grade two times and mathematics in fourth grade or eighth grade two times, sufficient so that we could see what the switches are.
The story is very heartening in mathematics. Nationally we’ve made statistically significant improvement. Twenty-eight of the 36 states that participated in this made significant improvement, and that’s very difficult to do. Some people are just astonished at it. So it’s a very good news story, particularly at 8th grade math. But what fascinated us is that the results for reading didn’t parallel the results for math. As you’ve indicated, there, half of all of the states that participated in the reading test showed that students in the bottom 25 percentile had actually performed less well at the end of the decade than at the beginning, whereas students in the top 25 percent were improving. That startled us.
It wasn’t something that we were aware was happening, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress released new data last Friday that showed in the year 2000 the same pattern held. Best readers are getting better, the worst readers are not doing as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s, to state the obvious, remember that we’re talking about different sets of kids. The 9-year-olds who took the test at the end of the decade were in diapers when the 1992 numbers came out. So does it mean that not enough change was made at the school level? We didn’t learn enough about methods and how to teach reading so that when they finally got to fourth grade, we couldn’t change the numbers that much?
MILY WURTZ: Well, one of the things we have to bear in mind is that it’s virtually the same fourth graders who were being tested in math and in reading, and those children one way or another managed to do fine in mathematics. So there are many factors that might account for this, but we can hardly dismiss it as the group of people in the fourth grade because they were making significant improvement, especially those in the bottom 25 percentile at the same period.
I don’t know, because this study just looked at state-by-state, what were the scores at a couple of points in time and what are the patterns. But some of our speculation may be that in the field of mathematics, there was some agreement among professionals as to the direction in which to try to move to get student performance up. Whereas in reading, for a long time, there have been debates as to what the best reading techniques have been. If you’re not yourself caught up in that debate, sometimes it seems crazy because what they advocate on the one hand helping students understand phonics so that they can decode what it is they’re reading as they begin seems sensible.
At the same time teaching them to read, to love reading and to read for meaning, understand and play with what it is that they’re reading for seems like a sensible idea — to an outsider seems perfectly reasonable to combine these ideas. When you’re inside the profession, there is sometimes more of a sense of an armed camp, one against the other and some have speculated that that might make it harder for people to just learn what’s coming out from research and integrate it in a scientific way in their teaching.
RAY SUAREZ: Some things that didn’t change during the ’90s are almost intuitive. If you had a kid from a poor family at the beginning of the ’90s, he was likely to do less well than a kid from a wealthy family at the end of the decade. If you had parents who didn’t go very far in school themselves at the beginning and the end of the ’90s you weren’t likely to do very well. How do we go to work on those kinds of things?
EMILY WURTZ: You have identified the second part of this study that mattered a lot to us, which is the achievement gaps between different groups of people. Our study looked at what the gap was between the top performing students and the bottom, and likewise between white students and minority students. And the kind of dramatic progress that we saw in mathematics education, the improvement of its student achievement there, wasn’t paralleled by a narrowing of this gap.
So again on this, our information doesn’t tell you why but we had independently begun looking at Department of Defense schools where black and Hispanic students were achieving at higher levels than black and Hispanic students in any of the states. We’re hoping that that study which is due to come out in May, may give us some new insights as to what kind of an environment you need to begin bridging these gaps between the performance of different kinds of students.
RAY SUAREZ: Is averaging all the students at a grade level in the United States very useful? If you cream off the top dozen or so achieving states, they score better than anybody in the developed world. If you take the bottom, they’re just about behind everybody from every rich society in the world. If you lump them together and get a middle figure, does it tell you anything really useful to know?
EMILY WURTZ: It’s a perfectly good question. We are all kind of curious to know state by state what was the average performance and we’re heartened, I mean, we really are heartened when 28 states show statistically significant progress of that average. But we agree with you; and the whole premise of this new report was that you ought to look more finely than that as well. Look at what’s happening to students at the top and the bottom. Look at whether you’re having any success narrowing the achievement gap. And I think you’re right. You have to, as you’re a policy maker or a principal or an educator you want to look at the fine details to get hints as to what I’m supposed to do next to fix this.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, your report is not a prescriptive document.
EMILY WURTZ: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: It clearly avoids that, but can it be used when you take it… numbers at a school on a principal’s desk, can he or she sift the numbers and figure out what to do next?
EMILY WURTZ: Well, when I look at that, I would definitely start giving some thought as to what kinds of programs we’re offering students who may be struggling to read. Increasingly, when we look at the state policies in states that are doing a good job on the indicators of the National Education Goals Panel, many of them will have very strong pre-school programs. And they may not have formal instruction with drill cards, but they have an environment that’s rich in literacy, language, reading aloud to children. And I think paying closer attention to making those kinds of services available to students who might be expected to struggle later on and pay attention, close attention, to this every year as they progress is probably a very good idea.
RAY SUAREZ: Will you be doing this close an examination in the numbers every time there’s a set of NAEP data coming out?
EMILY WURTZ: There will be new information on mathematics and science coming out this summer and this fall. We feel this has been so productive in telling us things we didn’t know that we’re asking that that same kind of analysis be done then.
RAY SUAREZ: Emily Wurtz, thanks for coming by.
EMILY WURTZ: Thank you, Ray.