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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Cautions

Researcher Finds that Changes in Achievement Gap Trends Indicate that Explanations Change over Time

A researcher argues that explanations for the white-minority achievement gap must change for different groups at different points in time to account for fluctuations in the achievement gap trends.

Citation:
This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Lee, J. (2002). Racial and ethnic achievement gap trends: Reversing the progress toward equity?Educational Researcher, 31,3-12.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Why is there an academic achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students?

Educational researcher Jaekyung Lee says that a closer look at the fluctuations in achievement gap trends over the past30 years indicates that most explanations are too simplistic.

  • Many explanations focus on factors that contribute to the achievement gap
  • Many explanations focus on factors that may help close the achievement gap.

While neither of these approaches is wrong, they are both incomplete.

Why?

  • They don't explain why the achievement gap has changed over time.
  • They don't adequately focus on where the change is occurring (for example, in high-achieving versus low-achieving students).
  • They don't adequately take into account the differences between racial and ethnic groups.

Lee says that long-term trends in U.S. student scores are more complex than many explanations would suggest. By looking at these trends more closely, Lee argues that many standard explanations are not adequate.

Lee also makes the important observation that different explanations may be needed:

  • at different points in time
  • for students at different levels of academic achievement
  • for students of different racial and ethnic groups

National Assessment of Educational Progress' Long-Term Scores

In order to examine the changes in the achievement gap over time, Lee looks at the long-term trends report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP has been tracking student knowledge in different subject areas for about30 years. The NAEP scores provide the best national, long-term indication of student knowledge of subject areas that are currently available.

Changes in the Achievement Gap for Different Racial Groups at Different Times

Lee notes that student scores on the NAEP test have changed over time, but in different ways and for different groups at different times. For instance:

  • The black-white achievement gap narrowed during the 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, white achievement was largely flat while black students began scoring higher on NAEP exams. However, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the trend reversed and white scores began to climb while black scores flattened out.
  • The Hispanic-white achievement gap has dropped relatively little over the time period, says Lee. Most of the gain by Hispanics was made by 1982. The achievement gap pattern after that time is inconsistent, says Lee.

Drawing on the NAEP trends, we can see that the "shape" of the achievement gap trend over time is very different for white students than for black students. See Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1. Achievement Gap in NAEP Reading Scores between Black and White Students
Figure 2. Achievement Gap in NAEP Reading Scores between Hispanic and White Students

Changes in the Achievement Gap for Different Levels of Achievement for Different Races

Lee points out that students at different achievement levels gained at different rates during different periods. For instance:

  • From 1978 to 1986, lower performing students of all races made greater gains than high-performing students.
  • From 1986 to 1999, higher performing students gained more than lower performing students.

Lee says that this change coincided with a widespread change in curriculum. He says the shift has been from minimum standards focusing on basic skills to an emphasis on high standards focusing on advanced content and higher order thinking skills. Lee thinks that while the earlier curricular focus may have helped the lower performing students more, the shift to higher order thinking skills may benefit the higher performing students more.

However, the situation is more complex than this, says Lee. When race is factored in, the situation becomes less clear.

  • In the earlier period, even though lower performing students of all races made gains, the gains made by black and Hispanic students was about four times greater than the gains made by lower performing white students, says Lee.
  • In the later period, all students at the higher performance level gained, but high-performing white students made nearly twice the gains that high-performing black and Hispanic students did.

Lee says that these patterns raise some perplexing questions:

  • Why would lower performing black and Hispanic students gain more than lower performing white students in the earlier period?
  • Why would higher performing white students gain more than higher performing black and Hispanic students in the later period?

The answers, says Lee, remain to be found.

The Challenge of Explaining the Achievement Gap

Lee looks at a number of standard explanations of the achievement gap and finds that none of them can adequately explain the above trends. For the three racial groups, he looks at:

  • changes in socioeconomic conditions
  • changes in family conditions
  • changes in youth culture
  • changes in student behaviors
  • changes in schooling conditions
  • changes in schooling practices

Lee's conclusion is that none of these factors can adequately explain why different racial groups changed their NAEP scores when they did and in the ways that they did.

Research Design:

Research Question

Why do standard explanations of the minority-white achievement gap inadequately explain fluctuations in the gap for different racial and ethnic groups over time?

Why do standard explanations of the minority-white achievement gap inadequately explain fluctuations in the gap for students at different achievement levels over time?

Data

Jaekyung Lee draws on the 1999 Long Term Trends report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Method

Lee compares expected and actual achievement gap trends.

Funding Source

This research was supported by the National Academy of Education and a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship.

 



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