State’s learning gap still vast

Wisconsin students stayed above national averages in test results released Wednesday, but a Journal Sentinel analysis of the data shows that the gap between black and white students was among the largest in the nation. In eighth-grade reading and in fourth-grade math, the gaps were larger than in any other state in the country.
Oct. 19, 2005

“It breaks your heart when you look at gaps of that size,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for disadvantaged students. “Wisconsin is not doing a good job of educating its black students.”
But some in education cautioned that while the gaps are a continuing source of concern, the scores provide only a rough picture of student achievement.
“To treat the state as if it’s a single school district is not particularly helpful,” said Russ Allen, a researcher at the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers union, referring to the fact that the test results are based on a limited sample of kids from across the state.
“It’s a very rough measure of how the state of Wisconsin is doing.”
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card, is the closest thing the country has to a national test, and as such offers the only detailed state-by-state comparisons available. Math and reading scores broken down by race and socioeconomic class are released for fourth- and eighth-graders in every state. The test is administered by a statistical arm of the federal Department of Education.
Overall, the results showed that the country’s students continue to improve in math, particularly fourth-grade math, but have not made as significant gains in reading.
“It’s very clear that our educational system is not making the kind of progress in literacy that we are making in numeracy,” said John Stevens, a member of the NAEP governing board.
Wiener added: “We’re not seeing as much progress in reading as in math, and we are not seeing as much progress in the older grades as the elementary grades. I think there’s been a growing recognition that we need to reform what’s going on in the middle schools.”
In both subjects and grade levels, Wisconsin students scored above national averages. In eighth-grade reading, for instance, the average score (on a weighted scale of 0 to 500) was 266 in Wisconsin and 260 across the country. But in that same category, the average score for white students in Wisconsin was 271, and for African-American students, 236. That 35-point gap was larger than in any other state.
For Hispanic students, the gap was still significant, but less pronounced. In eighth-grade reading, the gap in scores was 24 points.
The study also found that the average score for African-American students in Wisconsin fell below national averages for African-American students in all four categories. White students in Wisconsin beat the national averages for white students in three of the four categories, though by only one to three points.
Test samples students
The NAEP exam, which is administered to a representative sample of students scattered throughout each state, offers a check on the testing systems used in different states. Generally, individual state achievement tests offer a rosier view of student performance than the results of the NAEP test.
In fourth-grade math, 59% of Wisconsin students scored in the basic or below-basic categories; 41% scored proficient or advanced, according to the NAEP results. In fourth-grade reading, 67% of Wisconsin students scored basic or below basic; 33% scored proficient or advanced.
Those percentages were comparable for eighth-graders. In math, 64% of students scored basic or below basic; 36% were proficient or advanced. In reading, 65% scored basic or below basic; 34% scored proficient or advanced.
Nationwide, the strongest improvement was in fourth-grade math, where scores were up for every major racial and ethnic group since the last NAEP release in 2003.
President Bush, meeting with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings at the White House Wednesday, called the overall results encouraging. The results are used by many educators and experts to try to gauge whether federal education policies – including a relentless focus on basic subjects and testing – are working.
“It shows there’s an achievement gap in America that’s closing,” Bush said, according to The Associated Press.
In a statement, National Education Association leader Reg Weaver said, “improvement in test scores is a good sign, but can’t be used as the sole indicator of student success.”
“This national test is just one way for us to see part of what students are learning.”
Gloom over gap
There was little to cheer about when it came to Wisconsin’s achievement gap, as the gap between white and African-American students was the largest in some categories for the second time.
In 2003, the gaps in eighth-grade reading and math were the largest in the nation. That year, there was a 49-point difference between the average scores of white and black eighth-graders in math (the gap this year is 45 points).
Wisconsin has shown some progress in lifting the scores of African-American and poor students, but “black students in Wisconsin learn less than in most other states,” said Wiener at the Education Trust.
Allen at WEAC notes that “we can’t ignore the fact that poverty has a tremendous impact on how kids do in school. It’s never an excuse, but to pretend it doesn’t matter is really unrealistic and probably naïve.”
In its release about the scores, officials at the state Department of Public Instruction note that state schools are experiencing the highest levels of poverty in more than a decade.
“We’ve made great strides in providing the (class reduction) and early childhood programs,” said Tony Evers, the deputy state superintendent. “I don’t think our efforts have been for naught. We do see on various other tests – where we test all children – slow, but steady progress.”