Achievement Gap Grows as Grades Rise, Report Shows

Cara Matthews, Press & Sun Bulletin (Binghampton, NY), March 3, 2006

ALBANY—The achievement gap between whites and minorities is closing significantly in elementary schools in New York and nationwide, but progress drops off slightly in middle grades and more in high school, an analysis released Thursday by an education-policy group found.

School districts have paid a lot of attention to early education in recent years, said Kati Haycock, director of Education Trust, which issued the report. The attention on middle school and high school education needs to be ratcheted up, according to her group.

“It’s really about where we focused for the last 10 or so years. We have approached education reform kind of like it’s immunization,” Haycock said. A better approach would be to treat education like nutrition, she said, meaning the intensity that begins in the early grades should continue throughout youngsters’ school careers.

The study looked at test results between 2003 and 2005 as a means of measuring progress since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. The federal legislation’s purpose was to raise achievement for all kids and close gaps between low-income and minority students and their peers.

Achievement gaps widen as students move from elementary to middle school grades because the nature of school work changes, said Thomas O’Brien, an associate professor of science education at Binghamton University. Prior to fourth grade, students are basically learning to read, while from fourth grade on they are reading to learn as they begin more intense work in content areas, he said. As a result, gaps in skills that seemed small begin to be magnified, he added.

“It (the gap) starts impacting all content areas,” O’Brien said. He compared it to building a house. A weak foundation may look OK when it is standing by itself, but put a second and third floor on top of a weak foundation, and the structure begins to crumble.

Closing achievement gaps also becomes more difficult as students get older, O’Brien said.

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