Agreeing on the Achievement Gap

It seems like when you ask others what K-12 school achievement gap they are worried about, the answers are local and personal. This makes sense but reminds me of how people are likely to praise the school their children are attending and criticize the rest of the schools as needing improvement. Politics suffers from partisan and provincial viewpoints. But the Senate and House are now trying to re-authorize the No Child Left Behind law and the issue of achievement gap is once again hanging in the balance of how they word the bill.

Disagreement Over the Achievement Gap

But can we agree on the achievement gap? Working on the achievement gap means agreeing that tests accurately measure the gap between white and black students, between high achievers and low performers. In fact the top politicians don’t agree on the gap, and with the revised SAT about to make its debut amid the Obama administration’s advice that schools test students no more than 2% of the time, I would say the achievement gap cannot be measured accurately by standardized tests.

Redefining Accountability

In my opinion, the achievement gap is part of a larger problem with how we hold schools accountable for teaching and learning. I see a turn away from top-down standardized testing and a return to the use of local testing grounded in much more valid types of assessment. The reason is that standardized testing fails to accurately capture, let along measure, the real progress in teaching and learning. Standardized testing helps us compare students across many different classrooms, and yet, that is also its problem, that students are being prepared very differently across these many classrooms. Should we hold schools accountable for their obvious differences? I propose using assessments that more accurately capture and measure student progress, along with standards for that progress, that allow us to compare the schools and classrooms. Accountability would be re-defined as helping every student make progress. In my mind, the real achievement gap is individual student learning…and that we are not promoting school accountability for all students to make the most progress possible.

New Policy on the Achievement Gap

So if we redefine the accountability for the achievement gap from standardized test scores to promoting every student to learn well, new policies that support this redefinition are needed that focus on capacity-building rather than policies that are punitive. Instead of handing out money to some states like in Race To The Top policies, Money would be equally distributed to increase student accountability for their own learning, teacher accountability for supporting student learning and school accountability for creating a learning environment.

One Example of Capacity Building Policies

In our work in Rochester, NY, we designed an intervention to fully integrate 10 schools with four types of art integration. Visual Arts, Music, Dance and Theatre were fully integrated with ELA and Math in 10 K-6 schools, and compared to 30 K-6 control schools. We found that the intervention worked to boost student test scores by 40% in year 3. But what we learned was that the intervention was at least partially successful because the classroom teachers were exposed to capacity building policies where teachers learned from other teachers. In our study job-embedded learning where teachers see other teachers teach their students was by far the most influential part of the intervention. If we can build the capacity of teachers and students to learn well, and in this case through arts integration, we can then begin to change our measurement systems form large standardized tests to more accurate assessments of student learning.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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