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Achievement gaps narrowing in US schools since No Child Left Behind

A new study looked at student performance in all 50 states since 2002, when No Child Left Behind Act took effect. The focus: achievement gaps for minority and low-income students.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 2009

Fourth grader Anthony Rosado listens to a nationwide back-to-school address by President Obama at Hollywood Hills Elementary School in Hollywood, Fla. on Sept. 8.

Lynne Sladky/AP

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The news from a major new education study is encouraging: Student achievement is going up, and the gaps in test scores between subgroups – such as between African-Americans and whites – are closing across all grade levels and subjects.

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The study, released Thursday by the Center on Education Policy (CEP), examines student performance in all 50 states since 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act took effect. It paid particular attention to the achievement gaps for minority and low-income students.

The report focused on "trend lines" – for Latino students in fourth-grade reading, for instance, or for low-income students in high school math – and examined the gaps between lines. The gaps narrowed in 74 percent of all trend lines the researchers examined, most often because the gains made by lower-performing groups outpaced those made by the top-performing group.

"This is good news for the country," says Jack Jennings, president of CEP, noting that the United States has been trying to address the achievement gap for more than 10 years. "All that now seems to be bearing fruit.... It shows that if we concentrate on something for a long enough period of time, we can have good results."

Despite this, the news isn't all positive. In 23 percent of the cases the report analyzed, the gap grew (although in some of those instances, both groups still made gains). And in a few cases, the gap narrowed, but only because the achievement of higher-performing subgroups went down.

"The gaps are still large, even with the gaps narrowing," says Nancy Kober, a consultant with CEP. In many cases, she notes, more than 20 points still separate the scores of white and non-low-income students from those of African-American, Latino, and low-income students. "We're still talking about a lot of ground that needs to be made up before the gaps can be said to have closed," she says.

Also, Ms. Kober points out, different methodology can change the results. The study focuses on the percentage of students who have reached the "proficient" level, since that's the level that the No Child Left Behind Act emphasizes. But when the researchers looked at the gaps between average test scores for all groups, the results were "still positive, but a little less rosy," she says.

CEP's study paid particular attention to fourth-grade math and reading scores, and it determined that all subgroups made more gains than declines at all three achievement levels – basic, proficient, and advanced. In particular, gains were made in math. The most noteworthy gains were for Latino students scoring at or above proficient in math: Ninety-five percent of the states with data reported improvement.

In general, the news was more positive for Latino and African-American subgroups and for students at the elementary-school level. Fewer gaps narrowed for low-income and native-American subgroups and for students in high school.

Still, says Mr. Jennings, "the overall message is that whatever way you cut it, the gap is narrowing."

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