On November 7, Superintendent Art Rainwater made his annual report to the Board of Education on progress toward meeting the district’s student achievement goal in reading. As he did last fall, the superintendent made some interesting claims about the district’s success in closing the academic achievement gap “based on race”.
According to Mr. Rainwater, the place to look for evidence of a closing achievement gap is the comparison of the percentage of African American third graders who score at the lowest level of performance on statewide tests and the percentage of other racial groups scoring at that level. He says that, after accounting for income differences, there is no gap associated with race at the lowest level of achievement in reading. He made the same claim last year, telling the Wisconsin State Journal on September 24, 2004, “for those kids for whom an ability to read would prevent them from being successful, we’ve reduced that percentage very substantially, and basically, for all practical purposes, closed the gap”. Last Monday, he stated that the gap between percentages scoring at the lowest level “is the original gap” that the board set out to close.
Unfortunately, that is not the achievement gap that the board aimed to close.
In 1998, the Madison School Board adopted an important academic goal: “that all students complete the 3rd grade able to read at or beyond grade level”. We adopted this goal in response to recommendations from a citizen study group that believed that minority students who are not competent as readers by the end of the third grade fall behind in all academic areas after third grade.
“All students” meant all students. We promised to stop thinking in terms of average student achievement in reading. Instead, we would separately analyze the reading ability of students by subgroups. The subgroups included white, African American, Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and other Asian students.
“Able to read at or beyond grade level” meant scoring at the “proficient” or “advanced” level on the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test (WRC) administered during the third grade. “Proficient” scores were equated with being able to read at grade level. “Advanced” scores were equated with being able to read beyond grade level. The other possible scores on this statewide test (basic and minimal) were equated with reading below grade level.
Using proficient/advanced scores in this way made sense. The Department of Public Instruction’s definitions of the categories would help us distinguish between reading at grade level or beyond and reading at a level that did not satisfy our goal for our students. The following are DPI’s definitions of the categories.
- Advanced: Distinguished in the content area. Academic achievement is beyond mastery. Test score provides evidence of in-depth understanding In the academic area tested.
- Proficient: Competent in the content area. Academic achievement includes mastery of the important knowledge and skills. Test score shows evidence of skills necessary for progress in the academic area tested.
- Basic: Somewhat competent in the content area. Academic achievement shows mastery of most of the important knowledge and skills. Test score shows evidence of at least one major flaw in understanding the academic content area tested.
- Minimal: Limited achievement in the content area. Test score shows evidence of major misconceptions or gaps in knowledge and skills tested in the academic content area.
However, staying true to our goal and using the categories of scores as intended does not lead to the conclusion that the critical achievement gap associated with race has been closed. There has been real progress since 1998. For example, African American third graders scoring proficient or advance has risen from 41% in 1998 to 69% in 2004. Nonetheless, there are significant differences between the percentages of students in subgroups who score proficient or advanced and those who score basic or minimal.
The news is best for “other Asian” students. Ninety-eight percent of these students score proficient or advanced. The gap between their performance on the WRCT and our goal of all students in the group “reading at or beyond grade level” at the end of third grade is two percent. White third graders come in second, with ninety-six percent scoring at proficient or advanced and a gap of four percent not likely to leave third grade reading at the desired level.
Ninety-one percent of Southeast Asian third graders scored at proficient or advanced. For them a gap of nine percent remains. Eighty percent of Hispanic third graders scored at proficient or advanced, leaving twenty percent with less than the desired reading level. Finally, sixty-nine percent of African American third graders scored at proficient or advanced and thirty-one percent are likely to complete the year without the reading skills needed to succeed in the next grade.
What the superintendent is saying is that MMSD has closed the achievement gap associated with race now that roughly the same percentage of students in each subgroup score at the minimal level (limited achievement in reading, major misconceptions or gaps in knowledge and skills of reading). That’s far from the original goal of the board. We committed to helping all students complete the 3rd grade able to read at or beyond grade level as demonstrated by all students in all subgroups scoring at proficient or advanced reading levels on the WRCT.