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.