Surprising News About the Achievement Gap

Reversing historical trend, black students' learning gains better in some Southern states than in North

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Owing to a legacy of slavery and segregation, the gap in academic achievement levels between white and black students historically has been the widest in the Southern states, but a new study released last week by the Department of Education shows that black students' learning gains are improving more in the South than in some Northern states.

According to the data, which analyzed the reading and math scores of black and white students on the series of federal tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), black students have made important gains in several Southern states over the past 20 years, while black achievement in some Northern states has improved more slowly than white achievement or even declined, the New York Times reports. The widest black-white achievement gaps are no longer seen in Southern states such as Kentucky, Alabama, or Mississippi, but rather in Northern and Midwestern states like Connecticut, Illinois, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

Conducted by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the report is the first federal study of its kind to examine achievement gaps in the states in addition to the national level. NCES officials said in a conference call with reporters that the study offered no hypotheses to explain the changes in black-white achievement, only statistical comparisons that might spur further research.

In a statement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the report shows that achievement gaps between different groups of students can be closed, but "the progress has been too slow."

"The achievement gaps are still too wide, and overall achievement is too low," he said.

The NAEP, whose results often are referred to as the "Nation's Report Card," is administered every two to four years to 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds and to fourth, eighth, and 12th graders in both reading and math. By 2007, the most recent year included in the new study, the widest black-white gap in the nation on the fourth-grade math test was in Wisconsin. White students there scored 250, slightly above the national average of 248, but blacks scored 212, producing a 38-point achievement gap. The study indicated that the average score for black students in Wisconsin was lower than for blacks in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, or any other Southern state.

Education advocates are discouraged by the report but are using its findings as the basis to point to examples of comprehensive education initiatives that have worked to narrow the black-white gap.

"Many African-American students enter school behind their white counterparts, and schools don't do enough to ameliorate the problem," says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that works to close achievement gaps. In a statement released on the findings, she cites examples of effective education reform in states such as Delaware and Arkansas, which have adopted strong statewide programs focusing on improving literacy, accountability, and linking instruction to standards.

Experts say it is impossible to determine from the report whether the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was partly designed to reduce the achievement gap, had had an impact on achievement levels.

K-12 education
education reform