Achievement Gap or Proficiency Gap?

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2009

Lots of coverage of the latest NAEP scores and what it means for efforts to close the achievement gap.  Results show efforts to close the gap “may have a limited shelf life for kids,” notes USA Today’s Greg Toppo. 

“Since the early 1990s, schools have helped minority elementary schoolers close the achievement gap in basic math and reading skills, with real progress showing up recently on a federally administered test given to thousands of kids around the time they’re in fourth grade. But by the time they get to middle school, it seems, their progress all but vanishes.”

“Some of the scores are higher than ever, some show no gains over time,” observes Diane Ravitch, a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP.  “A closer look reveals that the rate of progress is no greater than–and in some cases, less than–the pre-NCLB years.

In the New York Times, Sam Dillon fixates on evolving regional differences.  “The nation’s most dramatic black-white gaps are no longer seen in Southern states like Alabama or Mississippi,” he notes, “but rather in Northern and Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Nebraska, Connecticut and Illinois.

Why does the achievement gap persist?  “African-American students are less likely than their white counterparts to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter,” Ed Trust’s Kati Haycock tells the Associated Press.  “They are less likely to be exposed to a rich and challenging curriculum,” she said. Meanwhile Richard Whitmire, citing Haycock,  points out that states that focus on early literacy skills are making more progress. 

In a non-NAEP post over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli tosses off an interesting and provocative comment on what we mean — or what we should mean — when we say “achievement gap.”  Mike’s eyebrows went up when he heard DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee say that if present trends continue “within six years we will have completely eliminated the achievement gap between black and white students in the District.”  Says Petrilli:

Now that’s quite a statement. To the man on the street, it surely sounds miraculous. You mean black students in the District of Columbia, most of whom live in abject poverty in places like Anacostia, are going to be learning at the same level as the handful of white students in the system, most of whom come from affluent, well-educated families clustered on Capitol Hill and the upscale neighborhood of Chevy Chase, where houses start in the $750,000 range? Wow! Except that’s not what she means at all. She’s referring to the proficiency gap—and by boosting the percentage of black students getting to “proficiency,” she is automatically closing said gap because almost all of the white students are already over that bar. But that doesn’t mean that the average black student will be achieving at the same level as the average white student, which is what “eliminating the achievement gap” sounds like.

Talk of closing the achievement gap is “sloppy and misleading,” Petrilli notes.  “Let’s stop talking about the achievement gap entirely, and instead focus on raising achievement across the board,” he concludes. ”It’s more honest, and, in my view, more equitable, too.”


  1. I think Mike Petrilli is spot on in his analysis, though I’m not sure I agree with his suggestion that we stop talking about the achievement gap. Still, there’s so much sleight of hand these days in discussions of school performance. It would be helpful if we could improve our measures, better define our terms, and then be ruthlessly honest in what we believe we have achieved.

    Comment by Claus — July 15, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

  2. At our company, we’ve had good luck closing the WHATEVER gap by doing three things:

    1. Using teaching techniques that allow for high degrees of differentiation so we can teach in classrooms with wide ranges of ability.

    2. Changing student motivation by teaching kids how to pick their own books, writing topics, and subjects of study within in responsible boundaries, and by teaching them how to assess their own work and behavior.

    3. Giving kids a high percentage of authentic tasks when it comes to assignments — things kids recognize as real and relevant to their lives.

    Now, each of these “techniques” work for “high” kids, too. But what we have found interesting is that while high kids stay high, low kids come up faster. Thus, any gap is narrowed, just as one would expect.

    Now, to be sure, the lower the kid is, the harder he or she has to work. That’s why we use a student-enabled homework system (virtually identical to the way adults in the work world do homework). In such a system, kids look at the amount of work they have to do, where they are in the term, and whether they are ahead or behind. Kids who are behind schedule themselves a lot more homework to do — most most of them actually do it. As a result, low kids really have to do more work than high kids — just as you would expect if you wanted to close a gap of some kind.

    Finally, we use a non-traditional, yet research-based, grading system that allows kids to view their achievement from several different perspectives. Again, this gives kids more information about how they’re doing and more choices in how they set goals for their improvement.

    The gap, however you define it, is real. And in many cases it is truly Grand Canyon-esque. But it is not insurmountable over time. It does, however, require a thoroughly different way of looking at teaching and learning than our current standards-based curriculum implies.

    Comment by Steve Peha — July 16, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

  3. I thought public schools were places for all students to learn. Are the gifted warehoused while the strugglers are the focus of instruction? What a deceptive means of creating favorable data that would be! Why not skip the ‘achievement gap’ phrase and teach ALL to potential,as suggested by Jay Mathews?

    Comment by Diane — July 18, 2009 @ 5:21 am

  4. “Proficiency” has been trivialized to arbitrarily-set cut scores on ungrounded tests that are sensitive to ethnic/SES differences but not to instructional differences.

    With few exceptions, kids enter school with the prerequisites and motivation to learn to read and to succeed academically. It’s not in the kids; it’s not in the water; it’s in the instruction. If a child hasn’t been taught to read by grade 3, there is a high probability that the individual will never acquire reading expertise. Yet we only begin to look at achievement at grade 3 or 4. Why? Because younger kids are unable to fill in the bubbles on multiple-choice tests.

    Where is the transparency and responsibility for the unaccountables who perpetuate these conditions?

    Comment by Dick Schutz — July 19, 2009 @ 9:13 am

  5. As the mother of four kids who attended some of the “best” schools in two of the “best” areas in the country, I will say that the top students are often warehoused, with excursions into forced peer tutoring and (heterogeneous) group work. The instructional focus is too often on the kids close to passing (whatever) standardized test; those who will pass easily and those who have no hope are disregarded. I have heard it many times; “these (gifted)kids will do fine, anyway.” So they will, but they could really fly with an appropriately challenging curriculum. Of course, that might make the (whatever) gap wider, and it would still split along ethnic lines.

    Comment by momof4 — July 20, 2009 @ 8:15 am

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