Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Closing the Achievement Gap - An Impossible Feat

The Fordham Institute released a new study today: High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB. The study consists of two parts:

Part 1 - An Analysis of NAEP Data
(The National Assessment of Educational Progress)
Part 2 - Results From a National Teacher Survey

Part 1 finds that although the rate of achievement has increased for the lowest 10% of students, the rate has remained virtually flat for the top 10% of students. Part 2 finds that the majority of teachers report that "low-achieving students receive dramatically more attention" than their high-achieving counterparts, yet the majority of teachers "believe that all students deserve equal attention". The majority of teachers (especially those in the nation's lowest-income schools) recommended that advanced students be in homogeneous classes, or magnet schools that bring advanced students together. ( much for the concept of "de-tracking", ubiquitously taught in teacher training programs!)

According to the report summery, the pattern of bigger gains for low achieving students and lesser gains for high achieving students is "associated with the introduction of accountability systems". The term "accountability systems" refers to student testing "regimes" in general, and specifically to the accountability system of NCLB.

A New York Times article cited Amy Wilkins, a vice president at Education Trust, an education lobbying group:
“My concern is that this report makes it seem like we have to choose between seeking equity and excellence,” she said. “We need to strive for both.”
What? Of course we need to strive for both. The report is saying that it is not occurring, and it does not occur in the "high stakes" testing environment of NCLB.

From the Education Trust Web Site (italics added):
Mission Statement

The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth. Our basic tenet is this — All children will learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels.

What We Do

The Education Trust advances its mission along several fronts, from raising its voice in national and state policy debates to helping teachers improve instruction in their classrooms. Regardless of where it occurs, our work maintains a relentless focus on improving the education of all students, and particularly those students whom the system has traditionally left behind.
Closing the achievement gap is impossible (see explanation below). The gap can only be practically decreased by helping the lower achieving students, intensively, from birth. The achievement gap is a massive cultural problem that will not be solved by putting pressure on teachers to improve.

Closing the Achievement Gap

These graphs are hypothetical representations of learning achievement. They are for elucidation purposes only and do not represent actual data.

The assumptions are that at birth (age 0) children know virtually nothing and by the time they are age 15 there is an achievement gap between the upper 10% of students and the lower 10% of students.

Graph 1 is a baseline representation. The top 10% of students are achieving at at faster rate (steeper slope) than the bottom 10% of students. The distance between the two graphs at age 15, represents the "achievement gap".

In graphs 2 and 3, the achievement gap has narrowed from the base line graph. In graph 2 the top students' achievement rate remained constant, but the lower 10% of students achieved at a faster rate than in the base line graph. In Graph 3, the the achievement rate of the lower 10% of students remained constant, but the achievement rate for the top 10% of students declined.

In graph 4, the rate of achievement for both groups increased. The rate of increase doubled (increased by 100%) for the lowest students but only increased by 50% for the highest students. Even though the rate of achievement was twice as much for the lower students, the gap remained the same.

A major problem with the NCLB act, is that it is narrowly focussed. It assesses student achievement with testing, then focuses on overall school performance and teacher improvement. This has put an impossible burden on teachers. Administrators come under scrutiny by the public when test scores indicate that a school needs to improve. They, in turn, put pressure on the teachers? It would be interesting to see if the NCLB correlates with an increased number of teachers fleeing the profession.

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