Racial education gap persists

When President Bush signed his sweeping education law a year into his presidency, it set 2014 as the deadline by which schools were to close the test-score gaps between minority and white students that have persisted since standardized testing began.

When President Bush signed his sweeping education law a year into his presidency, it set 2014 as the deadline by which schools were to close the test-score gaps between minority and white students that have persisted since standardized testing began.

Now, as Congress prepares to consider reauthorizing the law next year, researchers and half a dozen recent studies, including three issued last week, are reporting little progress toward that goal.

Despite concerted efforts by educators, the test-score gaps are so large that, on average, black and Hispanic students in high school can read and do arithmetic at only the average level of whites in junior high school.

"The gaps between African-Americans and whites are showing very few signs of closing," Michael Nettles, a senior vice president at the Educational Testing Service, said in a paper he presented recently at Columbia University. One ethnic minority, Asians, generally fares as well as or better than whites.

The reports and their authors, in interviews, portrayed an educational landscape in which test-score gaps between black or Hispanic students and whites appear in kindergarten and worsen through 12 years of public education.


Some researchers based their conclusions on federal test results, while others have cited state exams, the SAT and other widely administered standardized assessments. Still, the studies have concurred: The achievement gaps remain, perplexing and persistent.

The findings pose a challenge not only for Bush but also for the Democratic lawmakers who joined him in negotiating the original law, known as No Child Left Behind, and who will control education policy in Congress next year.

Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, who are expected to be the chairmen of the Senate and House education committees, will promote giving more resources to schools and researching educational strategies to improve minority performance, according to aides.

The law requires states, districts and schools to report annual test results for all racial and ethnic groups, and to show annual improvements for each. It imposes sanctions on schools that do not meet the rising targets.

Many experts and officials, including the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, have supported the goal of raising all students to academic proficiency, but they also have called achieving it in a decade unrealistic.

But President Bush, who put education at the center of his 2000 campaign, has insisted that not only is it feasible but that the gaps already are closing.

"There are good results of No Child Left Behind across the nation," President Bush said last month in North Carolina. "We have an achievement gap in America that is ... that I don't like and you shouldn't like."

"The gap is closing," he said.


The researchers behind the reports made public last week in Washington, D.C., New York and California were more pessimistic.

"The achievement gap is alive and well," said G. Gage Kingsbury, an author of the report issued in Washington by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit group based in Oregon that administers achievement tests.

Examining results from reading and math tests taken by 500,000 students in 24 states in fall 2004 and spring 2005, the study found: "For each score level at each grade in each subject, minority students grew less than European-Americans, and students from poor schools grew less than those from wealthier ones."

Minority and poor students also lost more academic ground each summer, the study said.

Ross Wiener, a principal partner at the Education Trust, a group that works to close achievement gaps and has consistently supported the federal law, called those findings "profoundly disturbing" and said it showed that schools continued to be a "significant source of disadvantage for minority students."

"The Bush administration wants to hang a 'Mission Accomplished' banner over NCLB, but a fair assessment is that progress thus far in closing achievement gaps is disappointing," Wiener said. He pointed to financing and teacher assignment systems that lead to schools with mostly poor and minority students getting less money, offering fewer advanced courses and having weaker teachers than more affluent, whiter schools.

By contrast, Henry Johnson, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in an interview that he found promise in the results released last year for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a battery of federal reading and math tests administered to thousands of students in every state.

An education group that has supported the federal law, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, whose leaders include former officials from the Reagan and the current Bush administrations, conducted a broad review of state achievement exams and other indicators and issued a report this month. It found that none of the 50 states had made widespread progress in narrowing the gaps.


But not all the news is bad. Individual schools in some states have made progress in narrowing the gaps between black and white, Hispanic and white, and the poor and more affluent, according to a Standard & Poor's unit that analyzes school performance.

Standard & Poor's has sifted through test data from 16,000 schools in 18 states, identifying 718 schools making significant progress toward the national goal.

"They are the classic diamonds in the rough," said Paul Gazzerro, director of analytics at Standard & Poor's School Evaluation Services. "But in general, schools are not closing achievement gaps."

What To Read Next
Get Local