Spring 2006

Untangling the Achievement Gap's Factors

‘Gaps intersected and converged like earthquake fault lines; what affected one rippled through the others.’

By Cathy Grimes
I have questions taped to my computer monitor. Among them are the usual prompts: What's the story? What's the point? What does this mean to the reader? But among them are other questions, equally important ones that often drive my reporting about education: What is the gap? What are its causes and consequences? How can I make the reader care?

Since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, achievement gaps have gained more prominence. But amid the many stories about schools and Ask teachers about their students; listen closely as they describe their expectations of them. Ask about support they receive, or don't receive, from their administrators, district officials and community members, including parents. Push beyond the usual complaints about time and money. There's never enough of either. Press them to be specific when they blame laws and policies for stagnant achievement.districts missing test score targets, students struggling to earn test scores high enough to graduate, and schools hit with "needs improvement" labels, I wonder if the words "achievement gap" are becoming more of a metaphoric measure than a genuine identification of a real and correctable inequity. I also worry that this phrase will become linked to only one or two high-profile gaps, rather than applied to the myriad chasms that education reporters encounter in schools.

This should not happen. For if this term starts to lack true meaning, what will be undermined is the vision of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 [ESEA], which morphed into the No Child Left Behind legislation. When it was first authorized, ESEA received bipartisan support as it rocketed through Congress; it was regarded not as an education law, but as a central part of that era's civil rights legislation. With its passage, Congress declared that every student in public schools had the right to an education that would provide the skills and knowledge needed to become productive, contributing citizens. Though the legislation's name has changed, that right still exists.

The 1965 law originally focused on students in low-income settings (predominately rural and urban school systems), where students' performance traditionally ranked below that of their suburban peers. It expanded to include cultural and ethnic designations, special needs and language barriers, as factors influencing student achievement and resulting in gaps. Today, burned-out teachers and a focus on test scores are being added to the stew of factors simply referred to as the "achievement gap."

Federal officials like to note how much money has been spent attempting to "bridge the gaps," and journalists often point to the resounding failure in this effort. But, in fact, there are pockets of success in bridging these gaps, and it should be as much a part of our job to explore these as it is to inform people about the failures. 



Green Park Elementary School teaching assistant Gayle Harwood helps kindergartner Octavia Ibarra-Flippo to be more comfortable on her second day of school. September 2003. Photo by Jeff Horner/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.

Examining Why Gaps Exist

As I began delving into issues related to Washington state's education reform efforts in 1993, I recognized the importance of this newfound focus on achievement gaps. It made sense: establish learning standards in all core subjects (Washington considers the arts, physical education, and social studies to be core subjects, though its key assessments are for math, reading, writing and science), then align curricula and teaching methods so students master the skills and content. But setting forth a common goal has not meant uniform delivery, nor has it resulted in uniform high achievement. And it has certainly not erased the inequities that are inherent in schools as children carry with them into the classroom all of the circumstances and issues of their home environment, just as teachers bring their backgrounds and preparation with them.

Not surprisingly, test scores, broken down within schools by gender and family income and with ethnic and racial backgrounds in mind, highlighted a wide range of mastery among students. And the patterns of these results were remarkably similar regardless of the district, school or grade on which I was reporting. In an effort to better understand why this was happening, I spent a lot of time in classrooms observing students, and I spoke with teachers at length about how they conveyed curriculum to students and how they assessed whether students absorbed their lessons. As I did this, I discovered gaps that stretched across grades and also within classrooms. And I discovered among teachers a range of attitudes toward students' learning and their potential.

Achievement gaps became the subtext of much of my reporting for they existed in every community and school district I covered, whether urban or rural, prosperous or poor, homogenous or diverse. Gaps intersected and converged like earthquake fault lines; what affected one rippled through the others. Some gaps had existed stubbornly for decades, as I found in studying results from norm-referenced standardized tests. Others emerged with changes that came to communities and neighborhoods. Sometimes these changes were obvious, such as an influx of employees associated with a specific industry arriving in one neighborhood while a rise in immigrant residents happened in another. As I looked more deeply at some of the gaps, they seemed to be based on more subtle influences, such as changing lifestyles or cultural pressures.

Stories from the classroom — my version of frontline reporting — focused on successful strategies to bridge the gaps, as well as on efforts and attitudes that seemed destined to leave the gap firmly in place. I learned to ask teachers to describe the range of abilities and achievement of students in their classrooms. And I'd talk with students about what and how they were learning.

Even in the fun stories, like one I wrote about third-graders learning to play cribbage to reinforce rote arithmetic skills that had gotten lost in the show-your-work shuffle, I came upon a gap that threaded its way through the story. As students brought to this game a wide range of language and math proficiency levels, cribbage and the guidance of adult volunteers proved to be great levelers. One of my favorite focus-on-the-gap stories came from a high school math teacher who was frustrated by the rising number of students failing algebra. The school's traditional remediation was to have students take the course again, but this teacher decided to try something different. After much lobbying, he taught a class in which the entrance requirement was a failing grade, and his teaching methods combined technology and elementary school strategies like team learning and centers. Some of the students in his class were second-language learners and children with mild disabilities. His expectations were high and, by midsemester, all of the students were earning a "C" or better.

I wrote about an elementary school where the majority of the students qualified for federal meal programs and spoke English as a second language. Additionally, the school had a high number of special education students and a dismal parent involvement rate. Students had struggled since 1996 to master state learning goals and meet proficiency targets on state-mandated tests, missing more often than not, and the school seemed destined for a No Child Left Behind "needs improvement" label, which meant possible state intervention. (The 2001 federal law requires schools to increase the percentage of students meeting testing goals each year; schools that fail to meet the target goals for two consecutive years are considered in need of improvement.) But the adults in the school refused to accept the idea that their students could not meet high expectations. When the school's 2003 test scores, the first ones that triggered the No Child Left Behind sanctions, were announced, the school not only met its state-mandated targets, but exceeded them.

I spent weeks with administrators, teachers, students and parents at that school to find out what had changed and why more students were passing the state test than had done so before. I was concerned that teachers might be "teaching to the test," one way to mask true gaps. But what I found when I went there were profound changes in the way that teachers taught and students approached their work. The key change: attitude. Adults and students began to believe they could meet high expectations, and they did. I wrote several stories that helped our readers to understand the school's strategies, all of which were accomplished with the same dollars every other elementary school in the district received. Three years later, the students at this school continue to meet state targets.

Sometimes schools' efforts to bridge or eliminate achievement gaps become victims of rigid laws and regulations. One district I covered ran three alternative education programs to retrieve dropouts and prevent students at risk of dropping out from taking that step. But few of the students graduated "on time" because they were making up failed classes or juggling work and family. Many came from low-income families, had learning disabilities, spoke little English, or were of minority backgrounds. When the students did graduate, they were not counted in the district's graduation rate because of federal accounting rules; in fact, they were considered to be nongraduates, similar to dropouts, and counted against the district. In this case, the state education department took up their cause and received federal permission for alternative graduates to be included in the total rate used for school and district accountability. Such schools — and issues — also deserve close scrutiny by reporters to make certain they give more than lip service to their mission.

Strategies to Tell the Story

How can the news media make sure attention remains focused on achievement gaps and the work being done to try to close them? It helps to get into the classrooms, especially in schools and districts with perennially low test scores or a pervasive attitude of ennui. Ask teachers about their students; listen closely as they describe their expectations of them. Ask about support they receive, or don't receive, from their administrators, district officials, and community members, including parents. Push beyond the usual complaints about time and money. There's never enough of either. Press them to be specific when they blame laws and policies for stagnant achievement. Make them define catch phrases and buzz words. Ask about the mission of the school. Ask the administrators and elected officials what they believe about children and learning and what they're doing to act on those beliefs. Then tag along to see if they walk the talk.

Observe, then ask to see the data, including test scores and detailed financial budgets. Scrutinize alternative education, special education, and other programs that might be masking gaps. Students might be incorrectly placed in such programs because they are low-achievers, but the lack of achievement might be happening because of poor teaching and not because of a disability or language deficiency. Explore what is going on at each grade level, from preschool up, and listen for subtle messages from teachers and peers that can affect achievement and success. Pay attention to school climate; ask students if they feel safe. Ask older students if they have teachers who take an interest in their success.

Jeffrey Fouts, former executive director of Seattle Pacific University's Washington School Research Center, opened my eyes to the irrefutable effect that adult attitudes have on student learning. He and his colleagues studied schools that are performing against expectations. Put most simply, he looked at schools with high poverty and racial and ethnic diversity that performed well and schools with low poverty and student diversity that struggled. His findings remind us of the need to move beyond the questions I have taped to my computer.

Cathy Grimes, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is the education reporter for the Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin. Her series of stories about the achievement gap and No Child Left Behind can be found at www.union-bulletin.com

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