The Achievement Gap: Part 2

Part 2 in the series on the Achievement Gap by guest blogger Takeshi Terada (

In Part 1 of this series on the Achievement Gap, I described how closing the achievement gap may not necessarily mean that children’s academic performances are getting closer to each other. This is because the achievement gap is defined and measured as the difference between the percentages of students being proficient for each group, not the difference in academic performance.

Why do we permit such misleading results? Under NCLB, states are allowed to set their own performance standards (Dahlin & Cronin, 2010; Phillips, 2010). States with stringent performance standards have a lower percentage of proficient students, which usually increases the achievement gaps. Others with low standards tend to have a higher percentage of proficient students, which tends to close the gaps between groups of students. This is a fundamental flaw under NCLB, because test results are not comparable across states (Phillips, 2010).

“Short” Selling
The American Institutes for Research (AIR), a Washington-based research organization, studied proficiency levels across states by using international testing data as the common measuring standards. In the report, each state’s standard is compared with benchmarks for the same subjects used in two international assessments, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study during 2007 (Education Week, October 25, 2010). The study found that “the percentage of students who reached proficiency in 4th grade math and reading and 8th grade math were strongly inversely proportional to the rigor of the achievement benchmarks” (Education Week, October 25, 2010). For example, in Massachusetts and Delaware, two winners in the federal Race to the Top grant competition, the percentage of proficient students were 49 and 76, respectively. These scores suggest that Delaware has a much higher percent of proficient students. However, recalculated based on the internationally benchmark, Delaware’s proficiency score goes down to 41, and Massachusetts’s score goes up to 63. These results indicate that Delaware has a much lower standard than Massachusetts. The study reported that except for Massachusetts, all states had much fewer students perform at the proficient level on the international benchmarks than their own standards in the report (see results here). Phillips (2010) suggests that states are selling their students short by having low standards.

A Level Playing Field
Proficiency rates depend on the difficulty of state proficiency standards, which cannot be directly measured or compared unless all states use common tests and scales (Dahlin & Cronin, 2010). If achievement gaps were analyzed on the basis of a level playing field for all the states, there would be dramatic drops in the percentage of proficiency among the states, especially those reporting the smaller gaps (Phillips, 2010). However, proficiency rates can provide information about the relative differences between the groups in question (Dahlin & Cronin, 2010). But, how about understanding achievement gaps? Even when proficiency standards are established on a common scale, the proficiency rates reveal little information about the performance of the groups of interest, other than what percentage meets or exceeds the standards (Dahlin & Cronin, 2010). The current performance metrics under NCLB make it nearly impossible to identify actual academic progress schools are actually making towards the goal of closing the real gaps in achievement (Dahlin & Cronin, 2010).

How can educators get a clear picture about the gaps in academic achievement and whether schools and students are making adequate progress?

One way to do that is for teachers to continually track and monitor their students’ progress through their classroom assessments. They need not wait for an end-of-year summative assessment to find out or know the achievement level of each of their students. The real gap that teachers care about is the gap between what a student knows now and what he or she should know later. That is, the gap that teachers care about is the gap between where the student is and his or her learning goal or target.

This is what formative and classroom assessments allow teachers to do. This is what Naiku is doing to help teachers reduce the achievement gap.

Dahlin, M. & Cronin, J. (2010) Achievement Gaps and the Proficiency Trap. Northwest Evaluation Association. Retrieved May 4, 2011, from

Education Week (2010, October 25). State Set Widely Varying ‘Proficiency’ Bars. Retrieved May 29, 2011, from

Phillips, G. W. (2010). International Benchmarking: State Education Performance Standards. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

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