Achievement gap points to ineffectiveness of decades of reforms

September 22, 2015

Thuyen Hoang, 10, left, Nang Moon, 10, and Julianna Lopez, 8, "squish" the bag of liquid polymers to form a solid bouncing ball. Garfield Elementary in Oakland, after-school program

The vast achievement gaps in the Smarter Balanced test scores released this month point to the ineffectiveness of reforms over the past 15 years or more that were intended to close those gaps, raising the question of whether a new set of reforms being introduced in California are more likely to succeed.

Those reforms include the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards; the Local Control Funding Formula, which allocates additional funds for high-needs children and grants local districts more decision-making powers; and a more comprehensive accountability system that emphasizes deeper learning skills, and promotes support for schools and teachers in place of punishment or sanctions.

Only 28 percent of African-Americans and 32 percent of Latinos who took the test in California met or exceeded standards on the English language arts section of the Smarter Balanced tests, which students took for the first time this spring. By comparison, 61 percent of whites and 72 percent of Asian-Americans met or exceeded standards in English language arts. The differences in math are even wider. Only 16 percent of African-Americans and 21 percent of Latinos met or exceeded the standard in math, compared with 59 percent of whites and 69 percent of Asian-Americans.

Addressing racial and ethnic inequality

These differences come against the backdrop of arguably the most sustained national conversation on the causes  and effects  of racial and ethnic inequality that has occurred at any time since the Civil Rights Movement.

The fact that the disparity in academic achievement is so wide in a state like California is even more troubling than in states where educational and political leaders may have been less committed to serving students from diverse backgrounds. In addition, during the past two decades, California has beaten back the anti-immigrant sentiments surging through other states, especially against Spanish-speaking immigrants. Latinos now wield considerable political clout in the state, and have helped drive education reforms here.

The last time there was a substantial narrowing of the gap in the U.S. was from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, often referred to as “the nation’s report card.” A  2010 report by the Educational Testing Service, titled “The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped,” observed that since the late 1980s “there has been no clear trend in the gap, or sustained period of change in the gap, one way or another.”

“The gaps were there and are still there,” said Michael Fullan, a Canadian educator who is working with several California school districts and the California Department of Education to promote what he calls “the right drivers for change.” These include promoting teamwork and collaboration, improved instruction and “systemic” rather than “piecemeal” change. The ongoing achievement gaps, he said, are an indicator that “the in-your-face accountability (of the No Child Left Behind law and related reforms) is not working.”

The NCLB law was supposed to hold school districts “accountable” for results. Teachers, principals and superintendents were prodded to reach a goal and rebuked when they failed to do so. By 2014 every child, regardless of background, was supposed to be proficient in math and English language arts. California, like every other state, did not come close to meeting that goal.

California’s ‘accountability’

It would be easy to dismiss NCLB as a top-down misguided federal strategy. But California promoted a similar ethos of “accountability” through the Public Schools Accountability Act approved in 1999 by the state Legislature.

Unlike NCLB, California’s accountability plan emphasized improvements from year to year, rather than setting fixed levels of proficiency that schools had to meet. During the reform’s early years, the state provided cash rewards to teachers, principals and schools that succeeded in improving performance. But the rewards part of the reform equation soon fell victim to the series of budget crises that California has experienced in recent decades.

Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, gives those accountability reforms a failing grade. “I don’t think there is any evidence that accountability systems have been effective in reducing achievement gaps,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by UC Berkeley School of Law professor Christopher Edley, Jr., who chaired the Equity and Excellence Commission established by Congress to advise the U.S. Department of Education on disparities that contribute to the achievement gap. Edley said the continuing achievement gap shows that the “approach to school reform starting with the 1983 A Nation at Risk report has run its course and left us with this yawning gap that is endangering America’s future.”


Testing low-level skills

Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who is president of the Learning Policy Institute  in Palo Alto whose goal is to “shape policies that improve learning for each and every child,” said one reason the approach used in recent years did not work is that “test-based accountability” reforms like NCLB emphasized “tests of low-level skills.”  Those tests shaped what students were taught, especially in schools threatened with sanctions if they did not produce higher test scores each year.

“As a result,” she said, “the curriculum divide grew wider between those schools that were teaching for higher-order skills and those drilling kids on lower-order skills.” Compounding the problem was that NCLB reforms featured “testing without investing,” Darling-Hammond said, so the gap “in access to dollars, qualified teachers, technology resources and other materials for learning grew wider and wider between rich and poor schools.”

“We have a lot of work to do,” she added, “and these data (on the achievement gap) show just how much.”

Given short shrift in the accountability reform era was the preponderance of research showing that the greatest predictor, by far, of how well or badly a student performed in school was his or her socio-economic background. Reformers often dismissed any reference to a child’s background as an “excuse” to let schools off the hook.

But it was precisely during the era of reforms demanding more “accountability” from schools that income inequality in California increased more than in all but a handful of states. According to one report, California ranks third among states with the highest economic inequality. The extent to which these inequalities affected the most recent test results is unknown, but if the research is any guide, they must clearly contribute to them.

Will new reforms work?

The big question is whether the new set of reforms in place in California will make more of a difference than the ones they are replacing.

Experts interviewed by EdSource agreed that, in general, California is moving in the right direction.

Stanford’s Reardon pointed to new research from UC Berkeley’s Rucker Johnson showing that states that have done more to equalize funding among poor and rich districts have seen improvements in educational outcomes of children in lower-income districts.

But Reardon is withholding judgment as to whether the Common Core will translate into major improvements.

“Will the Common Core make things better or worse or make no difference in terms of equity?” he said. “I hear competing arguments. Both have merits.”

One argument, he said, is that more-affluent districts will have more resources to meet the raised expectations embodied in the Common Core standards, and will widen inequalities in education outcomes.

The other argument is that the Common Core will put pressure on schools to move away from what he terms the “drill and kill” approaches to the curriculum of the NCLB era, and that by “pushing toward higher standards of instruction and learning, the kids in disadvantaged schools will start getting what kids in advantaged schools are getting.”

“Both are very plausible arguments, he said. “We don’t yet know how it will play out. I wouldn’t venture to predict at this point.”

Stanford’s Darling-Hammond, who is also chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said the state has invested $2 billion into technology upgrades and professional development for the new standards that she believes “will begin to level the playing field” over the next few years. “I would expect to see a reduction in the achievement gap because of all these factors,” she added.

Cutting poverty’s impact

It is also clear that while California will funnel more funds to schools serving low-income students, it will not tackle directly the income disparities that students experience in their home environments – and which are so highly correlated with test scores and academic outcomes generally.

UC Berkeley’s Edley says that schools can do much to mitigate the effects of poverty, starting with expanding access to early education and preschool. Another strategy would be to expand the community schools model, in which schools become a hub for the entire community and bring together many partners and organizations that offer a range of services to children, youth and families.

But for community schools to be truly effective, the approach itself needs to be improved, said Edley. The key is to ensure that the range of health and social services community schools are supposed to offer “are baked into the structure of these programs rather than being “ad hoc and voluntary.”

Fullan believes that the impact of poverty on academic achievement can be reduced “by half” with better teaching. This involves focusing on the needs of English learners, promoting better leadership and “zeroing in on improved instruction and getting teachers to work together,” he said.

“The new strategies in education are competing with poverty and can make more of a difference than we think we can make,” Fullan said. “If you really end up saying there is nothing we can do because of poverty, then you are really dead in the water.”

But if Fullan’s assertion is correct – that the impact of poverty on the achievement gap can be reduced by half – is that good enough?  Shouldn’t California be striving to reduce the achievement gap altogether?

That will take significant investments that California has been so far unwilling or unable to make. “I doubt that schools alone will ever entirely reduce the achievement gap without some equally concerted efforts to reduce racial and ethnic inequality in incomes and neighborhood conditions outside school,” Reardon said.

EdSource will be looking closely at the achievement gaps reflected in the Smarter Balanced test scores in California that were released on Sept. 10. This article will be accompanied by a series of interviews with leading educators and scholars that we will publish over the next several weeks. They include interviews with  Christopher Edley, Sean ReardonMichael FullanLinda Darling_Hammond and Marshall “Mike” Smith.


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