assessment, accountability, and other important stuff

Bridging the Gaps

Charlie DePascale

Apparently, it’s all about gaps.

I have attended two research conferences so far this month; and at both conferences there was lots of discussion about lots of gaps.  At the NEERO conference, the discussion focused on achievement and opportunity gaps.  At the CEC convention, the gap between educational research and practice as well as the gap between the promise and reality of technology were added to the conversation.  Each of those gaps was exacerbated by communication gaps and, ultimately, policy gaps.

In this post, let’s focus on the achievement and opportunity gaps.  At the conferences, they were often presented as a forced choice test: you could choose to focus on the achievement gap OR you could focus on the opportunity gap; but not both.  On one level that makes sense to me.  After you have confirmed the existence of an achievement gap five, ten, or fifteen times, there is little to gain from simply showing that the gap exists once again.  At some point, the focus has to shift to identifying and eliminating the causes of that achievement gap.  That conversation should quickly lead to the opportunity gap.  There is little doubt that factors within and outside of schools that impact students’ opportunity to learn are significant contributors to the achievement gap.  In that sense, I view the achievement gap and opportunity gap as inseparable issues – two sides of the same coin. I am concerned about the opportunity gap because it leads to gaps in academic achievement and other inequities.

There is a danger, however, in focusing totally on the opportunity gap and ignoring the existence of the achievement gap (or worse, denying its existence).  Eliminating the opportunity gap is difficult, expensive, requires long-term commitments from a variety of stakeholders and will not occur overnight.  Statistically controlling for the impact of the opportunity gap, on the other hand, is relatively simple.  And when faced with a choice between a difficult and simple solution, Well, we now how that game ends.

There are certainly legitimate uses for approaches that attempt to control for differences in opportunities when reporting results, and particularly when holding schools and districts accountable.  The similar school bands of the 1980s and 1990s or the more recent value-added models reflect attempts to make fair comparisons between schools or to hold schools to reasonable standards.  The danger is that under the wrong circumstances conditional expectations can easily morph into lowered expectations.  It is a slippery slope.  And that is why it is important to keep a balanced focus on both the opportunity gap and the achievement gap.

Going too far down the path of explaining away the achievement gap also increases the likelihood that people will fall back on the ability gap rather than the opportunity gap as the cause of differences in student achievement.  (Again, policymakers like other physical objects seek the path of least resistance.) In many ways, it is a belief in the ability gap and not the existence of an achievement gap which should be regarded as the real threat to improving opportunities and eliminating inequities in education.  Always lurking below the surface, emerging on occasion, the ability gap renders the achievement gap immutable; and in a strange way there is something comforting, albeit destructive, in allowing oneself to think of a difficult challenge as unsolvable.

There can be little doubt that eliminating opportunity gaps (within and outside of school) is by far the most important factor to improving student learning and eliminating achievement gaps.  In an age of accountability, however, it can be quite difficult for stakeholders to focus simultaneously on long-term solutions and short-term ratings. One need only read the statement of purpose for Title 1 (see below) to get a sense of why this is so difficult.  The constant shifting back and forth between the need for programs to provide equal opportunities and accountability systems and assessment to measure gaps is enough to make your head spin.  But that is the task before us.

We need to bridge the current gap between the programs being implemented under Title 1 and the measures of the effectiveness of those programs.  Bridging that gap will require an understanding of the realistic, research-based outcomes that can be expected from those programs in the short term when they are implemented under existing (less than ideal) conditions and over the long term.  Acquiring that understanding will require honest communication about both the opportunity gap and the achievement gap. And that understanding and communication will have to lead to sound policies.  That’s the annoying thing about bridging gaps.  There are no short cuts.



Title I — Improving The Academic Achievement Of The Disadvantaged


Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 6301 et seq.) is amended to read as follows:



The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments. This purpose can be accomplished by —

(1) ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards so that students, teachers, parents, and administrators can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement;

(2) meeting the educational needs of low-achieving children in our Nation’s highest-poverty schools, limited English proficient children, migratory children, children with disabilities, Indian children, neglected or delinquent children, and young children in need of reading assistance;

(3) closing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and nonminority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers;

(4) holding schools, local educational agencies, and States accountable for improving the academic achievement of all students, and identifying and turning around low-performing schools that have failed to provide a high-quality education to their students, while providing alternatives to students in such schools to enable the students to receive a high-quality education;

(5) distributing and targeting resources sufficiently to make a difference to local educational agencies and schools where needs are greatest;

(6) improving and strengthening accountability, teaching, and learning by using State assessment systems designed to ensure that students are meeting challenging State academic achievement and content standards and increasing achievement overall, but especially for the disadvantaged;

(7) providing greater decisionmaking authority and flexibility to schools and teachers in exchange for greater responsibility for student performance;

(8) providing children an enriched and accelerated educational program, including the use of schoolwide programs or additional services that increase the amount and quality of instructional time;

(9) promoting schoolwide reform and ensuring the access of children to effective, scientifically based instructional strategies and challenging academic content;

(10) significantly elevating the quality of instruction by providing staff in participating schools with substantial opportunities for professional development;

(11) coordinating services under all parts of this title with each other, with other educational services, and, to the extent feasible, with other agencies providing services to youth, children, and families; and

(12) affording parents substantial and meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children.

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