The Achievement Gap(s)
Randy L. Hoover, PhD
The achievement gap is a term used widely in the education reform movement to denote what are seen as inappropriate performance differences among established groups. Typically it is used to refer to the difference in standardized test scores across subgroups as defined in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or more recently by socio-economic groupings. The term is most commonly used to indicate performance comparisons between either wealthy students and poverty students or between white students and black students.
In terms of test performance between white and black students, the reformists have consistently argued that a serious gap exists with white students outperforming black students. To make their argument, reformists, just as the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), present data such as the percent of whites passing a particular test compared to the percent of blacks passing the same test. The numbers always indicate white performance being clearly higher than that of the black students. Most often, the tagline that follows uses their so-called evidence to further demonize urban school educators.
However, the most critical issue in the scoring differences is poverty, not race, as ODE has suggested for years. In my first study (2000), when I compared white and black test performance controlling for economic class, there was no significant difference. The issue is fundamentally one of poverty, not race. As found in both studies (Hoover, 2000;2008), when we control for wealth-poverty, the racial gap all but disappears, losing its statistical significance entirely. Though there are still very slight differences between black and white performance, they are not statistically significant. Statistically, black and white performance is a dead heat. Without this more in-depth analysis of the scores across race controlling for wealth-poverty, there is an insinuation that blacks don’t learn as well as whites, which was simply not evidenced in any of the data.
Historically, the Ohio Department of Education has greatly misrepresented the racial gap, continually blaming the income-racial gap on the quality of the educators in the urban districts and schools where the lower end of the gaps are most noticeable. This was especially true of Susan Zelman when she was state superintendent. With the ODE press release for the Ohio School Report Cards in 2007, Zelman said one of the most pressing issues for Ohio remains the achievement gap between students of different races and abilities, including a gap of more than 25 points between whites and blacks1. The blatantly racist subtext of what Zelman said went unchallenged even though it was widely reported.
There is also a very frustrating irony in what the achievement gaps reveal that is directly connected to my research findings on Ohio test (in)validity that is never given as an interpretation by the reformists. Both research studies (Hoover, 2000;2008) clearly confirm that the achievement tests measure the lived experience of the student, not the academic achievement resulting from school and teacher effects. Given these findings, we would predict performance gaps across groups with significantly different cultural, home, and neighborhood environments. Indeed, that is precisely what the achievement gaps reveal as they provide additional evidence for the Ohio validity findings of the two studies. Yet in no reformist discussions that I am aware of is the nature of the achievement tests suggested as the cause of the much publicized achievement gaps.
There is no doubt whatsoever that at least internally, ODE is well aware of the validity failure of Ohio’s tests just as they are aware of the racial gap actually being an economic gap. But admitting the validity failure would destroy the efforts to serve their corporate-special interest groups and thwart their mission to maintain the imposition of pseudo accountability on Ohio public schools and their educators.
It is extremely important for all educators to understand that any issue of an achievement gap is just another product of the metrics machine designed to perpetuate the fictions of school reform, another product to convince the public just how much the American system of public schooling has failed to produce. But when the product of the metrics machine is used for whatever reason to suggest a racial distinction that does not exist, the reformists cross a moral line and reveal an insidious character with motives and values that must be scrutinized and exposed publicly across all of their claims.