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Introduction: Explaining California’s Achievement Gaps

kidsinclassroom Source: WoodleyWonderWorks / CC BY Flickr

Since researchers first documented the K-12 academic achievement gap between Black and White students in the 1960s, closing the gap has become a national priority. The Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty both used educational equity as a primary measure of equality in the 60s. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act demanded that schools “improve the academic achievement of the disadvantaged,” and allocated $14.4 billion to fund programs nationally. Likewise, President Barack Obama’s Race-to-the-Top program called on states to “turn around our lowest achieving schools” and allocated $3.4 billion for the task in 2010 alone.

Today, California is on the precipice of a sweeping school finance reform aimed at closing the achievement gap. The state’s recent Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) will add $18 billion to the state’s education budget and allocate funds to those districts and charter schools with the greatest proportions of low-income and English-learner students, those at the bottom of the modern achievement gaps.

Although the country and California have consistently supported attempts to close the achievement gap, the public’s understanding of the gap itself is outdated and unclear. Over the next two weeks, we will be releasing a series of studies on California’s most pressing student achievement gaps. Our goal is to clarify today’s achievement gap, identify important emergent trends, and elevate the discourse on how we should think about the achievement gap. Below, we present some overarching findings from our work:

Societally and economically, the achievement gap is a costly problem. Poor, unequal student achievement results in a less educated society and a less productive workforce. Civically, deficits in student achievement inadequately prepare students to participate in democratic processes. Fiscally, the achievement gap between Blacks and Whites represents an estimated $400 to 600 billion loss in potential GDP. To build a vibrant society – both socially and fiscally – we need Californians who are ready to contribute and participate in advancing the state.

To close the achievement gap, we need to better understand it. One place to start is acknowledging that there are multiple achievement gaps. While there has been a significant national focus on the Black-White achievement gap, it has actually narrowed while the gap between high- and low-income students has widened. In addition, as Hispanics constitute 52% of the state’s students, the Hispanic-White gap has a major impact on the state’s educational outcomes. Finally, the gap between English-learners and non-English-learners has grown to be California’s widest achievement gap. Throughout this series, we will elaborate on each of these trends and identify California’s most pressing achievement trends.

We need stronger data on California’s student performance. Better data means more granular measures, longitudinal, and publicly accessible data on California’s students. Right now, the data fall short of capturing the kind of nuance that can help inform solutions to the achievement gap. For example, the state measures the difference between “English-learners” and “Non-English-learners,” but to evaluate our English learning programs, we need to examine how many years a student has been in an English program and their performance has changed within that track.

Likewise, the state’s current measure of economic disadvantage classifies students as either low-income or not low-income (based on a student’s eligiblity for free or reduced lunch). Realistically, students live within a much broader spectrum of income than either advantaged or disadvantaged. Therefore, while binary measures of student demographics may be simpler to collect, these shortcuts do not lend themselves to high-quality research. If we want research to help solve the achievement gap, we need better data to understand it.

Finally, standardized test scores are insufficient measures of student achievement. Tests can be biased, and these biases have used in court cases to argue against the SAT and some state-based testing programs (although not California’s). This report relies primarily on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores and tests in the national Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), which have not been subject to as many criticisms of this nature. However, no one claims that test scores are perfect measures of student learning, and better data on student achievement would include measures that speak to the spectrum of student achievement outside of test-taking knowledge.

As the state begins implementation of the LCFF, we must have a strong baseline understanding of California’s most pressing achievement gaps. Over the next two weeks, we document the top findings in achievement gap research for California’s students. We will highlight the foundations of learning built during a child’s first five years, the wide gaps between English-learners and non-English-learners, the growing relevance of income on student achievement, and how the achievement gap influences later-life outcomes such as high school graduation and college eligibility.The reports are as follows:

By the end of this series, we hope to have elaborated on California’s diverse achievement gaps and moved the discourse closer to understanding the research and solutions to closing the gap and ensuring equitable educational opportunities for all of California’s students.

Works Cited [+ Expand]

Next (Part 1: Achievement Gap Emerges Early)

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