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Misreading the Achievement Gap: A Tale of Bi-Partisan Failure

It's not student achievement, but student equity that should concern us, says this Professor of Education.

Photo Credit: John Steel |


It took about twenty years, and then another secondary ten years, but the hysterical and misleading A Nation at Risk under the Reagan administration successfully kicked off three decades of public school accountability.

In the beginning, the hysteria revolved around several points that were factually inaccurate, but publicly effective: (1) U.S. public schools were failing, (2) U.S. students were weak, and possibly lazy, but their schools didn't do much to challenge them, and (3) because of this cycle of lazy students in failing schools, U.S. international competitiveness was in dire straits.

These claims and the discourse grew from the White House and became recurrent and unquestioned talking points in the media, among the public, and by politicians. At first, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. public education built state-based standards and testing cycles that targeted primarily students (best typified by the exit exams designed to hold students accountable and insure the value of the high school diploma) and then gradually the schools themselves with the rise of school report cards.

The initial twenty-year cycle of state-based school accountability also spawned governors as education reformers—most notably the fraudulent Texas Miracle during George W. Bush's tenure in Texas that helped bolster his run for the White House. Bush as education governor became education president and brought Rod Paige along as Secretary of Education to convert the Texas Miracle into a federal version of the state-based accountability movement, now popularly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In 2012, two important aspects of NCLB are worth considering: (1) NCLB has been repeatedly praised as a bi-partisan effort, but we rarely consider that bi-partisanship by itself doesn't insure quality (and in education, we have ample evidence bi-partisanship is evidence of failure), and (2) NCLB has also been credited for raising national awareness of the achievement gap -- yet the achievement gap itself is a seriously flawed and limited mechanism for evaluating students, as I will examine below.

Misreading Education "Gaps"

The single greatest bi-partisan success of NCLB, the argument has been, is that the federal government began forcing all schools to address the achievement gaps among subgroups of students, impacting significantly how schools identified, tested, and displayed test data related to English language learners, African American students, and special needs students.

Here, though, the use of the term "achievement gap" has never been challenged or examined for what agenda it fulfills or how it positions our entire national view of students, teachers, and schools.

Like the "no excuses" mantra "poverty is not destiny," the use of "achievement gap" redirects the focus on the tests themselves, the students as agents of the test data, and the teachers as agents of the students as test takers. Again, just as the "no excuses" mantras accomplish, "achievement gap" creates a myopic view of agency—the rugged individual—that decontextualizes children from their lives outside of schools and students, teachers, and schools from the society and communities in which they exist.

The dynamic created by NCLB's focus on the achievement gap (including federal funding to support addressing that gap) revealed to the public that such gaps exist—although anyone working in education or examining test data throughout the twentieth century knows that standardized scores have always been and remain most strongly correlated to the exact characteristics used to identify subgroups of students (language proficiency, parental income, parental education level, race, gender). By situating the accountability movement within schools and focusing the process on test scores, the public and political conclusions drawn from the identified achievement gap included that, once again, schools were failing, but resulted in a new claim that teachers were the primary cause of that failure.

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