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A Fair Look at the Achievement Gap

April 06, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Money is on the minds of educators across the state as local districts determine next year's budget, state lawmakers wrangle over a budget deficit, and the federal government injects cash into the economy.

It's easy to fixate on the numbers, but it's important to remember what the numbers are supposed to achieve. To do that, it often helps to look at some other numbers.

It has been known for many years that there is a sizeable gap between the performance of minority students and white students. This has come to be called the achievement gap. The causes for the achievement gap are many and are hard to pin down. Exactly to what depth the role of poverty, home situation or institutional bigotry play in the achievement gap is still under debate. The attempted fixes have proven to be equally slippery and complicated. No one has solved the problem yet.

The achievement gap is a national problem, but it is particularly glaring in Minnesota. African American, Hispanic and Native American students are not performing at the same levels as white and Asian students.

As Minnesotans consider their pocketbook as it relates to local, state and federal taxes, it might be a good time to review some numbers about the achievement gap.

Education Trust is a Washington D.C.-based group that gathers information about the achievement gap. Its president, Kati Haycock, recently spoke to the Minneapolis Foundation during which she called Minnesota's performance at closing the achievement gap "miserable."

Using data from various federal and state government sources, the group recently released a report that outlined the severity of the problem in Minnesota.

The U.S. Census is predicting the number of minority students in Minnesota will grow:

The achievement gap shows us that these new Minnesotans may have a hard time becoming prepared for the workplace by 2020. Here are two indicators using the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test offered across the nation every several years. These are results for white and African American students in Minnesota; Asian students' scores run roughly the same as white students, and NAEP didn't track Hispanic and Native American scores until recently and they compare evenly with African American scores:

The key to these graphics is the amount of change in test scores between 1990/92 and 2006. There was a 34 point gap between African American and white 4th-graders in 1992, and there's a 33 point gap in 2007. Similarly, there's a 41 point gap among 8th-graders in 1990 and a 37 point gap in 2007.

Under any circumstances, that can hardly be considered a success.

Nor can Minnesota's position among the states be considered a success.


Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming did not meet reporting requirements.
Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming did not meet reporting requirements.


The achievement gap is a complex problem and these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. But these numbers show very real students being left behind. Cutting investment, removing teachers, aides and support professionals from the classroom is not the solution. That course of action hurts all Minnesota students. 

Minnesotans are at our best when we all do well. State policy and investment decisions must reflect that thinking.

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