Part 2 in this series
Part 3—Where the NAEP gaps are: Way back when, in an essay for Slate, Richard Rothstein, an actual education expert, described the "truly spectacular gains" which had been recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), our one reliable domestic testing program.
To all appearances, Rothstein isn't a public relations expert. His remarks appeared in paragraph 15 on an 18-paragraph report. Because of the way our press corps works, few people have heard a single word about these "spectacular gains:"
ROTHSTEIN (8/29/11): The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago...The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning.Say what? "The numbers show that...black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago?" Was there any possible way that could have been correct?
Rothstein was referring to scores on the NAEP's Grade 4 math test. (In its most widely-cited component, the NAEP tests students in Grade 4 and Grade 8 in reading and math.) And sure enough! As of 2007, black fourth-graders were scoring higher in math than white fourth-graders had scored in math in 1990 and in all the years before that. See our previous report.
Rothstein also seemed to be right in his subjective assessment. Unless something is "wrong" with the NAEP data, black fourth-graders actually had recorded "spectacular gains" over the previous twenty years. That said, very few people have ever heard any such facts, mainly because because of the way the contemptuous, incompetent the press corps handles such facts.
Unfortunately, Rothstein was also right about another fact. Despite the "spectacular gains" recorded by the nation's black kids, "test score gaps had barely narrowed" in the years under review. As Rothstein noted, that was because the nation's white kids had also recorded large score gains in Grade 4 math in the years since 1990.
The black-white "achievement gap" had narrowed in the years since 1990. But because both groups had recorded large gains, the black-white achievement gap had only narrowed a bit. The black-white achievement gap remained, though at a substantially higher achievement level.
If you read the national press, you will be exposed to one part of that story. You'll hear about the achievement gaps. You will hear nothing—nothing at all—about the "spectacular gains."
Did black kids record "spectacular gains" in the twenty years under review? An unpleasant person would say that your national press corps displays contempt for those good, decent kids, and for its adult readers, who are provided half the news about those deserving children.
Very few people have ever heard about those "spectacular gains." To all appearances, Bill Keller had never heard a word about them. In a New York Times column which appeared two weeks before Rothstein's essay, he wrote that the United States had recently experienced "decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education."
Keller's claim was hard to square with Rothstein's account of "spectacular gains." What explains his gloomy claim?
Keller had been executive editor of the Times during much of the period under review. His puzzling account of those "embarrassing decades" reflected the way his paper reports, and also hides, the basic facts about our public schools.
Alas! In a remarkable sleight-of-hand, the New York Times, like other news orgs, reports the gaps—but disappears the gains! Readers are told about the persistence of the gaps; their persistence is said to show that the public schools have failed.
Readers aren't told about the "spectacular gains" which underlie this dynamic. In an era of script-driven "journalism," this constitutes one of the mainstream press corps' most striking sleights-of-hand.
Make no mistake! Yes, the score gains have been large. But the achievement gaps are large and very important too. The gaps represent only one part of a two-part story. But if we care about all our kids, those gaps are a very important part of our world.
How large are the achievement gaps? The achievement gaps are large. Below, you see the average scores recorded by our three largest student groups in the most recent administration of the NAEP. For simplicity's sake, we'll show you Grade 8 only.
For all NAEP data, just click here. You'll have to proceed on your own:
Average scores, Grade 8 reading, 2015 NAEPFor people who want all our kids to succeed, those gaps are distressingly large.
White students: 273.12
Black students: 247.17
Hispanic students: 252.53
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2015 NAEP
White students: 291.06
Black students: 259.85
Hispanic students: 269.47
According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten or eleven points on the NAEP scale is often equated to one academic year. We regard that as a very rough rule of thumb, but it gives us the start of a rough idea concerning the size of those gaps.
Those gaps persist despite the gains which all three groups have shown. If we want all kids to succeed in school; if we want all kids to feel good about themselves in school, then those gaps define a yawning social problem, a problem which persists today, though at a higher achievement level than in the past.
Other types of achievement gaps are defined by the NAEP data. Below, you the see the gaps which obtain between lower-income and higher-income kids—between kids who qualify for the federal lunch program and kids who don't:
Average scores, Grade 8 reading, 2015 NAEPThose are large achievement gaps too. In the United States, as in other countries, academic performance tends to correlate with family income.
Higher-income students: 276.36
Lower-income students: 252.55
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2015 NAEP
Higher-income students: 295.75
Lower-income students: 267.97
(Who qualifies for the federal lunch program? Roughly speaking, a student's family income must be less than twice the federal poverty line.)
We're going to show you a third set of gaps. These painful numbers display the size of the achievement gaps which obtain between higher- and lower-income kids of the three population groups:
Average scores, Grade 8 reading, 2015 NAEPThose numbers describe a painful reality, in which lower-income white students slightly exceed the average scores of higher-income black kids.
Higher-income white students: 279.06
Lower-income white students: 260.89
Higher-income black students: 259.07
Lower-income black students: 243.75
Higher-income Hispanic students: 264.58
Lower-income Hispanic students: 249.00
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2015 NAEP
Higher-income white students: 298.32
Lower-income white students: 275.94
Higher-income black students: 273.58
Lower-income black students: 255.82
Higher-income Hispanic students: 282.24
Lower-income Hispanic students: 265.86
On their face, those are terrible gaps. You've never seen these numbers laid out in this degree of detail. That's because, if the truth be known, the national press corps shows little interest in the lives of the nation's black and Hispanic children.
(In fairness, indifference about this state of affairs isn't limited to the the mainstream press. Judging from appearances, liberal and progressive journalists would rather jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than spend their precious time on the daily school lives of black and Hispanic kids. You've never seen these topics discussed on MSNBC, the corporate pseudo-liberal channel. You've never seen its multimillionaire hosts stoop to consider these topics.)
The gains have been large, but the gaps are large too. If you read the New York Times, you'll encounter one part of this story. You'll read about the very large gaps. The "truly spectacular gains" will be disappeared.
Even at that, the gaps will sometimes be sensationalized, in familiar ways. In that recent New York Times report about the Bridgeport schools, readers were instantly handed an anecdotal claim about the way the city's (black and Hispanic) fifth graders "often read on kindergarten level."
As we noted in Part 1 of this week's report, the data from a serious study seemed to show that Bridgeport kids in grades 5-8 are, on average, working 1.7 grades below traditional grade level. That would suggest that the city's fifth graders are, on average, working on traditional third or fourth grade level.
The anecdote about "often reading on kindergarten level" gave readers an instant exciting jolt. It also came from a very old, highly disparaging playbook.
Black kids have shown "spectacular gains" on the NAEP over the past twenty years. They also stand on the minus side of some large achievement gaps.
Why do those large gaps exist? Various possible explanations exist, involving our brutal racial history and a range of current practices.
For today, we wanted to sketch the size of those gaps, gaps which persist in spite of the gains. In Part 4 of this week's report, we'll return to the international scene for detailed applications.
Next—part 4: The international achievement gaps, on both the TIMSS and the PISA