WHERE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAPS ARE: A somewhat extreme but important case!


Previous report in this series

Part 1—The gaps of Fairfield County: In line with best practices for the classroom, let's start with a quick review.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is our most reliable public school testing program. In its best known component, the federal programs tests students in Grade 4 and Grade 8 in both reading and math.

The NAEP tests a nationwide sample of students. It also tests samples of students from all fifty states, and from 24 urban school districts.

The NAEP has been in operation since roughly 1970. Throughout its history, and in recent decades, substantial score gains have been recorded by all major population groups.

You almost never hear that fact from our big mainstream news orgs, but it's a fact all the same. These are the score gains recorded by our largest student groups in Grade 8 math since 1996:
Grade 8 math, NAEP
Gains in average scores, 1996 / 2015

White students: 12.16 points
Black students: 20.57 points
Hispanic students: 20.25 points
Asian-American students: 17.91 points (2000 / 2015)
According to a rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often equated to one academic year. We regard that as a very rough rule of thumb, but those are the "truly spectacular gains" to which educational specialist Richard Rothstein referred, though only in passing, in this essay at Slate.

On their face, those score gains seem very large. But very few people have ever heard about those "spectacular" gains. With amazingly few exceptions, you never learn about those gains when you read the New York Times or the Washington Post. Instead, you're told about the "achievement gaps," which are also large and important.

With amazing regularity, our big news orgs report the gaps but disappear the gains. In the process, the American public is vastly misled about a widely-discussed, important topic:

Where the test scores are.

That said, the gaps are also important! For that reason, in this, the third week of our four-week report, we'll examine another important question:

Where the achievement gaps are.

Within our American public schools, large achievement gaps obtain between different groups of kids. Although these gaps have been growing smaller, they remain large for a maddening reason: when all population groups record score gains, the achievement gaps tend to remain, though at a higher achievement level.

Those achievement gaps are important. Two weeks ago, the New York Times published a front-page report about a pair of neighboring school districts, in a state whose public schools have recently been in the news.

The state is Connecticut, which is currently involved in a court case about public school funding. The front-page report in the New York Times was written by Elizabeth Harris and Kristin Hussey, a pair of reporters with little experience in public school reporting.

As Harris and Hussey started, they sketched the outlines of a large and challenging set of gaps—the gaps of Fairfield County. Headline included, this is the way they began:
HARRIS AND HUSSEY (9/12/16): In Connecticut, a Wealth Gap Divides Neighboring Schools

The two Connecticut school districts sit side by side along Long Island Sound. Both spend more than the national average on their students.
They prepare their pupils for the same statewide tests. Their teachers, like virtually all the teachers in the state, earn the same high marks on evaluations.

That is where the similarities end: In Fairfield, a mostly white suburb where the median income is $120,000, 94 percent of students graduate from high school on time. In Bridgeport, the state’s most populous and one of its poorest cities, the graduation rate is 63 percent. Fifth graders in Bridgeport, where most people are black or Hispanic, often read at kindergarten level, one of their teachers recently testified during a trial over school funding inequities.
The town of Fairfield and the city of Bridgeport are communities in Connecticut's larger Fairfield County, one of the nation's wealthiest counties. The town of Fairfield is a high-income suburb of Bridgeport, a low-income city.

As they start, Harris and Hussey present a striking set of contrasts between Fairfield and Bridgeport. That said, thhe most depressing statement in that opening passage is anecdotal:

How many fifth-graders in the Bridgeport schools are actually reading "at kindergarten level?" Harris and Hussey never say. It all depends on what the meaning of "often" is!

We're going to guess that the actual number would be quite small. That said, another depressing claim occurs a bit later in the Times report. This claim seems to involve ninth-graders at Bridgeport's Harding High, which serves grades 9-12:
HARRIS/HUSSEY: Some students arrive at Harding High School reading at a third-grade level, said Aresta Johnson, an assistant superintendent who oversees the district’s high schools. And in many cases, she said, students simply have not attended school consistently enough to learn how to read fluently.

“We face a huge issue with chronic absenteeism,” she said. Cuts to athletic programs, which are a big draw for some students, have only made the situation worse.
That claim is also anecdotal. How many kids enter Harding High reading at a third-grade level? It all depends on the meaning of "some!"

Aside from the graduation rates, Harris and Hussey provide no actual data about the achievement levels of the students in these neighboring school districts. We're handed a pair of vague assessments and left to imagine the rest.

That said, a statistical assessment can be drawn from a graphic which appeared in the Times in April. The graphic accompanied a multiply bungled report by education reporter Motoko Rich. We refer to the top graphic here.

Inevitably, the headline on the New York Times graphic misstates what it actually shows. The graphic was based on data collected by Stanford professor Sean Reardon. Reardon's data record achievement levels for public school students in grades 5-8 in the nation's many school districts.

According to that graphic, the average child in the Fairfield School District, grades 5-8, scored 2.0 grades above grade level. (That's the town of Fairfield, not the entire county.) By way of contrast, the average child in the Bridgeport School District scored 1.7 grades below.

Inevitably, the Times didn't say if those average scores were for reading, or for math, or perhaps for an average of the two subjects. That said, those scores demonstrate a large "achievement gap," on average, just by the middle school years:

On average, the achievement gap for students, grades 5-8, is a walloping 3.7 years in those neighboring districts. Presumably, this would mean that the average student entering seventh grade in Bridgeport is working at something like fifth grade level. His or her counterpart in Fairfield would be working at ninth grade level.

According to the Reardon data, those challenging achievement gaps coincide with a large family income gap. According to the Times graphic, these were the median family incomes for the students Reardon assessed:

Bridgeport: $40,000
Fairfield: $158,000

According to the Reardon data, the two school districts are also quite different demographically. The Fairfield students studied by Reardon were 84% white, according to the Times graphic. The Bridgeport students were 48% Hispanic, 41% black.

A basic fact should be noted. The Harris/Hussey front-page report examines a fairly extreme case. Several towns in Fairfield County are actually wealthier than the town of Fairfield, but Fairfield is wealthier than the average American suburb. Its juxtaposition to low-income Bridgeport creates a somewhat unrepresentative case.

As noted, Harris and Hussey don't have much experience in education reporting. Harris, who's eleven years out of college, was moved to the Times K-12 beat in July 2014. Hussey describes herself as a freelance reporter based in Connecticut.

This lack of experience in education reporting may explain some of the shortcomings which appear in the Harris/Hussey report. The writers brought little skepticism or savvy to their treatment of the judge in the ongoing court case, who seems to have made the kinds of assessments and recommendations which will often seem to make sense to people who have no experience with low-income public schools. (Let's outlaw social promotion!)

They also may have their thumbs on the scale a tad at some points concerning the funding of Bridgeport's schools. As a general rule, cities with pre-existing transit bus systems don't operate separate school bus systems for their high school students. At one point, the writers seem to treat this state of affairs in Bridgeport as a sign of the city's failure to provide basic public school services.

That said, a very large achievement gap obtains between these neighboring districts. People who want all our kids to succeed, and to feel valued, should be disturbed by this state of affairs.

No, Virginia! Most fifth-graders in Bridgeport's schools aren't "reading on kindergarten level!" That's the type of exciting fact which may substitute for full information when big newspapers wallow in their favorite subject, the alleged, often wildly exaggerated failures of our schools.

That said, large achievement gaps do exist within our domestic NAEP scores. On the international front, some substantial achievement gaps do obtain between the students in the public schools of the world's various developed nations.

In newspapers like the New York Times, a cruel, inexcusable practice has long obtained. We're constantly told about the gaps, sometimes in slightly embellished form. But we're never told about those large score gains. The gains are disappeared.

On the international front, we're told that small corners of Europe outscore our public schools. We aren't old that larger corners of the U.S. outscore those small corners of Europe.

Those practices constitute a journalistic con, a point we'll consider again next week. This week, though, let's try to establish some basic facts about a key subject:

Where the achievement gaps are, foreign and domestic.

Tomorrow: The gaps in the international scores


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