Finally, some good news when it comes to the educational prowess of America's public school students: The results of a recently released national study assert that the achievement gap—or the difference in achievement levels between various subgroups of students—is narrowing between advantaged and disadvantaged students on state reading and math tests.
The findings published in the study, which was conducted by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, show that achievement gaps for minority and low-income students have narrowed across all grade levels and subjects in 74 percent of cases between 2002 and 2008.
On the whole, the report says disparities are narrowing because of accelerated achievement of lower-performing groups, rather than slower progress by high-achieving groups. For instance, the percentage of students who were "proficient" grew at a faster rate for African-American students than for whites in 142 of the 153 trend lines studied. Overall, gaps narrowed more often for African-American and Latino subgroups than for American Indian or low-income ones.
To perform the analysis, the CEP collected data about student performance on the No Child Left Behind-required assessments in all 50 states. But some experts say that because some states set a low bar for determining "proficiency" on state standardized tests—often in an effort to avoid sanctions under NCLB—that might weaken the group's findings.
"Part of the progress on the percent-proficient measure is because the proficiency bar is set so low," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley, in an interview with Education Week. He also contends that state test results might be more responsive to improvements on relatively low-level skills, thus exaggerating any apparent narrowing of gaps. And providing more concrete contradictory information, data from the most recent administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the "nation's report card," did not reveal any closing of gaps between 2004 and 2008.
Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the CEP, admits that schools are still far from the finish line. "Now is not the time to let up," he said. "But as a nation, if we ask schools to narrow the achievement gap and that's what the schools are doing, we should give them credit for it."