Mind The Gap

In my previous post, I waded cautiously into the topic of group differences on state tests, just dipping my toes into the murky waters of achievement gaps. In this post I will just keep on blogging until I am at least waist deep in the big muddy.

I discussed the changes in the handling of group differences by the assessment/measurement community across three eras: pre-NCLB, NCLB/ESSA, and the present. In considering, achievement gaps, I will retain those three eras and add a fourth – a starting point in the attention to gaps that began with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Over the course of those four time periods, I argue that our thinking about achievement gaps has evolved in the following manner.

Mind the Gap! → Mind the Gap →  MIND THE GAP →  Mind the Gap?
In the Beginning, ESEA and Title 1 – Mind the Gap!

With ESEA and Title 1 in the mid-1960s, the federal government acknowledged that achievement gaps existed and must be closed. Title 1 was intended, and designed, to provide funding “to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps.” Through ESEA, Title 1, and all of the other social legislation passed at the time, the federal government hoped to eliminate the root cause of achievement gaps.

Pre-NCLB – Mind the Gap

By the time the modern era of state testing started to take shape in the 1980s, hopes had faded that schools could eliminate the long-entrenched achievement gaps strongly associated with social factors outside of the school’s control such as poverty and socioeconomic status.

Many states used regression-based techniques to create “similar school bands” to allow schools to compare their performance on state tests to schools with similar demographic, socioeconomic, and background characteristics.


No Child Left Behind, with its nominal goal of 100% of students proficient by 2014 and reporting requirements for disaggregating results by student subgroups, shined a spotlight on achievement gaps and established consequences for not eliminating them.

The reaction that the NCLB goal of 100% proficiency was impossible to meet was as universal as it was immediate. Perceived fears of a state-led Race to The Bottom were countered by a federally-funded Race to The Top. The upshot of both races demonstrated that establishing low standards that all students can meet and high standards that few students can meet are equally effective methods of reducing reported achievement gaps while not actually changing student achievement.

While we can point to some pockets of progress, achievement gaps remained throughout NCLB, leading to ESSA’s focus on long-term goals and its allowances for timelines and/or outcomes to be established by subgroup – which in many ways returned us to the status quo of the previous ‘Mind the Gap’ era

The Present – Mind the Gap?

The present is characterized by skepticism. Unlike the NCLB-era skepticism related to the feasibility of closing achievement gaps, skepticism in the current era simultaneously questions the foundations, existence, and relevance of the achievement gaps that have driven education policy for several decades. There is also connection made between the extreme focus of those policies on achievement gaps and the dangers of operating schools from a deficit perspective and viewing students through a deficit lens.

With so many balls of various shapes and sizes in the air at once, it is too soon to know how the questions being asked now will be answered. It is too soon to know how those answers will affect our views toward achievement gaps and either directly or indirectly affect assessment design, the computation of student and group scores, and the reporting, interpretation, and use of those scores.

It seems safe to assume, however, that the next five to ten years will be a period of instability and opportunity in educational assessment and accountability, a state that should fill the measurement and assessment communities with equal parts urgency,  fear, exhilaration, and resoluteness – the classic innovation cocktail.

Bridging Our Gaps

Even as we move bravely forward into a new world with regard to achievement gaps, there are lessons from our past and present that must not be forgotten.  I will close this post with what I view as three critical takeaways from our recent history with achievement gaps.

All gaps are not regarded equally

We can save for another day the question of whether all achievement gaps are created equally. For the purposes of this post, we simply need to acknowledge that not all achievement gaps are regarded equally – never have been and probably never will be.

Historically, the gender gap in mathematics achievement with males performing better than females has been a much bigger concern than gaps in reading and writing where females outperformed males. Nary an eyebrow was raised when the mathematics gender gap on some state tests was effectively eliminated overnight simply by adding a written component to the math test in the form of constructed-response items requiring students to show their work and explain their thinking.

There is also an ebb and flow to the sense of urgency attached to particular gaps. Currently, the white-Black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps are the focus of attention. Other race/ethnicity gaps such as the smaller, but persistent, Black-Hispanic gap or the growing Asian–“everybody else” gap are barely a blip on the radar. At other times, the aforementioned gender gaps, gaps involving students with disabilities and English learners, or gaps based on socioeconomic status have been the primary concern – and would be again at some point if we continued down the same path.  It is likely that these gaps share many characteristics with the white-Black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps, but each of them also possesses unique features and unique issues that should be considered as we move forward.

Gaps are a social construct

I’m not really sure what that means, but I know that the heading got your attention. Anyway, before a gap can be measured, its parameters must be defined. As NCLB was taking shape in the early 2000s, some of the great thinkers in our field asked critical questions about closing the gap to all students attaining proficiency.

  • Jim Pellegrino repeatedly asked, “A gap in what?”, seeking clarification on the type of knowledge and skills in reading and mathematics that were considered essential to being proficient. Would it be acceptable if the gap in basic knowledge and skills were eliminated, but a large gap in deeper thinking remained? (e.g., On NAEP, moving students from Below Basic to Basic, but not to Proficient)
  • Ed Haertel and Brian Gong asked, “What gap?”, curious about what the overall distribution of student achievement would look like after the gap to proficiency was closed. As illustrated below, if we begin with approximately one-third of students proficient (blue), would we be happy with either one of the two outcomes showing 100% of students proficient. In the middle example (orange), the achievement of all students improved. All students are proficient, but any gaps that existed remain exactly the same. In the example on the right (green), all students are proficient and gaps are reduced/eliminated, but the achievement of highest-performing students has declined and students have met only the minimum requirements for proficiency.


We never adequately answered, or even adequately acknowledged, either question during NCLB, RTTT, or ESSA, and that has not served us well.

Accounting for Gaps is a Double-Edged Sword

There is probably no concept that the assessment community is more familiar with than intended and unintended consequences. Every attempt to account for, or adjust for, achievement gaps in education policy has been rife with consequences that may have been intended by one group, but were unintended by another. Two examples out of many,

  • The similar school score bands from the pre-NCLB era were conceived of as a fair way of allowing a school to compare its results with those facing similar equity challenges and barriers. However, they also became a vehicle for perpetuating separate standards and lower expectations for some students.
  • Evidence of student growth was inserted into NCLB accountability even before the annual testing requirement kicked in as a means of rewarding and incentivizing schools that were making progress moving low-performing students and student groups toward proficiency. Without appropriate guardrails in place, however, growth to nowhere can be a slippery slope to lower expectations and outcomes.

One thing that nearly six decades since the passage of ESEA have demonstrated clearly is the importance of paying attention to the root causes of achievement gaps within and more importantly, outside of the education system. Without such attention, the education system, like water, will seek its own level with regard to achievement gaps.

Although he may not have been “the decider” as he proclaimed, with NCLB and 100% proficiency, George W. Bush was certainly “the disruptor” with regard to achievement gaps in education. After an initial shock to the system, however, forces efficiently and effectively activated to restore equilibrium, to maintain the status quo.

My sense of skepticism, cynicism, and history tells me that the current push to question achievement gaps includes both people genuinely seeking equity and people seeking to maintain the status quo, and that the questions they ask and the solutions that propose may look very similar on the surface.

I am also skeptical that the problems being addressed can be solved solely by the education system, and certainly not solely through changes to assessment. It’s likely that the current attempt to closely examine the education and assessment infrastructure, on its own, will lead to significant improvements in programs and policies, and ultimately improved achievement for all students and will close whatever gaps are still considered important. Without a comprehensive and coherent solution that addresses the entire system that has resulted in inequities and gaps and achievement, I am skeptical that improvements will be widespread and that such efforts will be able to withstand the current flowing against them.

I am confident, however, that the coming years can be a period of great change and innovation in educational assessment and accountability. In my next post I will address the single most important factor in making that a reality.

Image by Greg Plominski from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

%d bloggers like this: