The internet has seen a flurry of activity recently over the DOE’s claim that it has reduced the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers. Testing that claim, the New York Sun submitted the ELA and math scale score data for students in grades 3-8 to three independent analysts, who concluded that the gap has decreased in ELA, but has stayed flat since 2002 in mathematics, confirming much of Eduwonkette’s analysis.
The new analysis emphasizes the difference between closing the proficiency gap by comparing the percentage of students who score at a level 3 or 4 on state tests, and closing the achievement gap by comparing mean scale scores.
The experts consulted disagree as to which of these measures is most useful, though in the end, both clearly matter. Closing the proficiency gap is important as it reflects a larger number of students performing at a level considered acceptable by the state, that is, more students with more knowledge (at least the kind of knowledge tested). Closing the achievement gap is important because it evens the playing field for students applying to college and in other situations where rank against others matters.
Aaron Pallas, an education and sociology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, sums it up in his memo to the Sun:
There are a great many social institutions that sort and rank individuals on the basis of test scores and the competencies they represent. Most of these institutions don’t have an unlimited number of positions or slots—rather, individuals are competing against one another for access. When these institutions rely on test scores, and there is an achievement gap among racial/ethnic groups on these tests, the lower-scoring group will be underrepresented. Raising everybody’s scores doesn’t change the rankings of individuals, which is the only way to change the representation of minority groups among those who are selected. Only by reducing the achievement gap can we increase the chances that members of racial/ethnic minority groups can get ahead in society via selective social institutions.