The Odd Logic of Achievement Gaps

My goal in this piece is not to suppose that the spirit of closing achievement gaps is wrong. It’s not. It’s wonderful. The idea that we, as a culture, have decided to turn our attention to improving the situation for those who are struggling the most is a blessed endeavor indeed.

However, we need to be careful that what we are doing is going to produce the results that we want.

Just so we are all on the same page, I understand achievement gaps to be the difference in achievement between one group and a different, higher-achieving group. They could be groups based on demographics or location, or age, or any number of identifying characteristics. In Michigan, right now, the focus tends to be “Top 30-Bottom 30.” The means that we will create groups of the highest 30% of student scores on any given assessment and the bottom 30% of student scores and compare them. The difference in average score from those two groups would be named “the achievement gap.”

In the current culture of accountability, small achievement gaps are generally considered to be a good thing. Big gaps are a bad thing. I’ve been in multiple data meetings where the goal is to make a plan as to how we can “shrink our gaps”.

But achievement gaps are curious little creatures. Big ones suggest that our highest achievers (on any given assessment) performed a lot better, on average, than our lowest achievers. Given this environment, this is seen as bad news for a lot of teachers. But in reality, this is quite good news for at least 30% of the students.

Small gaps are an equally mixed blessing. A small gap simply means that there wasn’t much difference between the two groups. It doesn’t mean that either group did well. In fact, some of my smallest achievement gaps on unit assessments have come when the whole group struggled.

Once again, I want to reemphasize the goal is noble. Ultimately, we want to keep the high achievers achieving highly, and elevate the achievers of the low achievers. Here are some thoughts as I ponder that idea.

1. As a former professor of mine, Joe Kretovics, once said, “If you are going to close the achievement gaps, those lowest achievers have to learn more each year than the highest achievers.”

Think about that for a minute. That is a simple statement to make and a terribly difficult task to pull off. First, you have to consider a complete role reversal. Closing achievement gaps doesn’t mean getting the “bottom 30″ (as the lower-achieving students have come to be known in Michigan) to keep up with the Top 30. It means that they need to outperform the Top 30. This is because, in general, in addition to a ton of other factors playing into their achievement, low achieving students also tend to be less proficient in the content than the higher-achieving students. Shrinking gaps means catching them up and moving them on at the same time. This is going to be tricky because…

2. Most academic supports are utilized better by the higher-achieving students than lower-achieving students.

There is a reason we are talking about the “achievement” of the students. This isn’t about brains. Practically all of the students in “the bottom 30″ are as smart as the students in “the top 30″. In general, though, the circumstances surrounding the students have contributed to whether or not the ability has manifested itself into academic achievement. In general, the higher-achieving students have a better track record of seeking out support, and taking advantage of resources that are available to make them more successful at school. Email and twitter reviews aren’t a lot of help to students without internet. After school programs and Saturday school aren’t a lot of help to students with transportation issues. Extra practice problems and test retakes aren’t a lot of help for students whose away-from-school lives contribute to a practice of not doing homework.

But those are all fantastic helps to students who are used to taking advantage of them. This is why a lot of these programs tend to grow achievement gaps instead of shrink them. I give test retakes. Each student gets one. Each test, it seems, I have an awful lot of students who are turning C+’s into A’s instead of the target audience which are the people turning E’s into B’s. All this leads me to believe that…

3. Perhaps “shrinking the gaps” is a goal that, while noble, might not be particularly useful.

Perhaps we are in a brave new world of school data. We are only now getting a chance to explore all that we can collect, disaggregate, and report. We are getting excited about all it can tell us and the potential for what it would all look like in a perfect world.

It seems that we haven’t yet made it to the stage where we are able to discern which metrics tell us the most, which metrics are useful, but only peripherally, and which metrics are really pretty useless.

My feeling is that achievement gaps belong in that last group. Not because of the spirit, but because of the effect. The fact that students in Michigan are being labeled by personnel in their schools as a member of “the bottom 30″ should make us nervous. (No kids should go through school being called “a bottom 30 kid”) The fact that we might skip out on a useful academic experience for the students because the gaps might grow as a result should make us nervous. The fact that we might consider leaving our “top 30″ to sit bored because we don’t want to push them for fear of a growing gap should make us nervous.

There are ways to support lower-achieving students. Perhaps focusing on achievement gaps isn’t one of them.

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6 thoughts on “The Odd Logic of Achievement Gaps

  1. I had a similar conversation today with our director of data and assessment. It was in regards to MAP scores and meeting the target growth. If I have my numbers right, the data tells him that students between the 40th and 60th percentile will make the most growth. Those below the 40th percentile may not achieve the same amount of growth due to lack of foundational skills. Those above the 70th percentile have less room to grow.

    In my two 7th grade standard classes I have students who were previously in an academic math class which we no longer offer. One class fared better than the other. While the students were assigned by computer, the students in the more academically diverse classroom fared better than the less academically diverse class that is clustered at the lower end.

    My pre-algebra class is clustered at the high end, and they grew like weeds. Most likely it’s due to being introduced to new concepts.

    I know I differentiated more in the more diverse standard class, and that may be why there was more student growth. I differentiated less in the other standard class so the few “higher” kids weren’t given as many opportunities to grow.

    Instead of defining the bottom and top 30, what if the focus was on moving all students forward? Granted it puts less emphasis on “the achievement gap” but at the same time it doesn’t leave anyone out.

    Just some random thoughts.

    • Well, a little less emphasis on the gap might be okay. I tried to consider what suggestions I could make. As the Data Team chair in our district, I get asked a lot of questions about this, and I want to try to keep the spirit, but try to stop the damage that intense focus on the gaps does. I wasn’t able to come up with much.

      But, I like the idea of focusing on each student’s growth as opposed to grouping them under a title like “bottom…”.

  2. Discussions of the achievement gap (or value added measures for teacher rankings) make me think of the Lake Wobegon Effect, like we are striving for this mythical plane of existence where there is no bottom half in a data set. Below average is simply not acceptable (despite its mathematical necessity)!

    (Of course I’m making light here; it’s a very real serious problem if the below average group is all our students of color, for example)

    But even the idea of reducing the standard deviation is a bit specious because, as you suggest, it necessitates that the top flyers simply learn or excel less, become a bit more “average,” which is not something we want to encourage. Or do we?

    The idea of proficiency is a nice one on its surface as well because it allows for variation in outcomes as long as every student meets the pre-prescribed level of proficiency. Problems here are that often the proficiency cutoff is post-prescribed (in NY the “cut score” varied from year to year and was often not known until after the tests), proficiency can be set too low so that all students attain it, or if too many students attain it then the standards are assumed to be too low, so we continually raise the bar (good or bad thing?). Plus who is deciding what proficient is?

    I don’t know what the answer is either, but I think that there are so many holes in all of the solutions put forward thus far. There will always be students who achieve less than others, but the problem is how that shakes out in the US. The reality is that American schooling is far from equitable and will likely remain so as long as the intense social stratification and segregation continues. Why are American public schools funded through taxpayer dollars, so that school districts in a poorer area by design not only draw from a more at-risk population but also have fewer capital resources? Why is it a crime punishable with prison for a parent who recognizes this inequity and tries to send her child to a wealthier district? Why have private-public hybrids been allowed to take root, siphoning off money (and often space, especially in the case of NYC) from an already-struggling system while not playing by the same rules as their public neighbors, and thereby performing a grand social experiment, largely on the poor?

    To me, these are the real questions concerning the achievement gap. I have probably pages more in me that I could write after being a NYC public school teacher for three years and now a public school teacher in the Netherlands for the last four, but I think I’ve written quite enough for now, haha!

    • I like your thought. It is as if the goal is for every student is to achieve EXACTLY the same level, since such is the only way the achievement gap disappears.

      I also like your statement that we in the states aren’t really prepared to do what it takes to really show a lot of improvement. And, to be fair, I’m not sure we have a culture that values education enough to support it. It’s seen as a rite of passage that a kid endures the drudgery. If we start trying to make school enjoyable, we start hearing criticism, “All they wanna do is make the kids happy. Don’t wanna push them.”

  3. Well said – I appreciate the position. Indeed, as you imply, the gap may simply be impossible to close because students vary – they always have and they always will. With the fact of human [intellectual] variability in mind (and without getting into what that variability is, because we don’t truly know what intelligence is, in any meaningful metric) the aim of closing a gap doesn’t make sense.

    But what then, should change agents focus on instead? I have a daydream wherein “teacher effectiveness” is simply measured in documented ability to enable growth in all students – growth from their start-of-year skills. An excellent teacher in such a framework would be one who can foster great/extensive/measurable/significant growth in the “bottom 30″ AND in the “top 30″ and all students in between as well. Seems so simple, on the surface, doesn’t it? Deceptively, so. But worth thinking about.

    • Tantalizingly simple, in fact. If only we had a reliable student growth measure. The hard part about growth measures is that there are two very distinct sides. The teacher plays a part and the student plays a part. It requires a cooperation between the two. If either side doesn’t hold up their end for any reason, the growth gets stunted. There is a myth that the best teachers will inspire students to hold up their end. That if growth is stunted, there MUST be SOMETHING the teacher can do to reverse it. I think that we are running into the fact that sometimes the teacher has done their best. Now, how can we tell the difference between a talented teacher doing their best and competing with forces outside of his/her control and a teacher that is neglecting opportunities at improvement and student engagement? Our district has tried to address that distinction with a whole lot of self-reporting from the teachers. Not sure if that’s the answer, but they are trying.

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