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Do we have the Heart to Close the Achievement Gap?

September 25, 2009 By Tom Hoffman, Guest Commentary

Tom Hoffman is an Assistant Professor, Hamline University

A recent report, "Minnesota's Future: World-Class Schools, World-Class Jobs," (PDF) applauds Minnesota's public schools for their performance on standardized achievement tests, graduation rates and scoring on college entrance exams.

However, the report - a collaboration between the Itasca Project and the Minnesota Business Partnership - claims Minnesota is not doing so well in closing the achievement gap between students in different demographic groups. In fact, the report asserts the state is among the worst in the nation in closing the gap between white students and students of color as well as students of privilege and students who live in poverty.

The genesis of the term "achievement gap" came with the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in 2002. NCLB is supposed to compare the achievement of white students against students of color, students who are economically disadvantaged and students with special needs. These groups are called subgroups. Examples of subgroups are:

  • African American students
  • Native American students
  • Students who receive free or reduced priced lunch (this is used to determine if a student's family lives below the poverty level)
  • Asian American students
  • English language learners (any students who don't speak English as a first language)
  • Immigrant students (for example, students from Somalia, Liberia, the Ukraine, or Mexico)
  • Hispanic students
  • Students who receive special education services

If any ONE of these subgroups does not perform well on annual state-wide tests in reading, math or science, the school is deemed as not making adequate yearly progress.

In very simple terms, schools that do not make AYP are said to be failing in the battle of closing the achievement gap.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education's statistics for 2008, there are significant performance gaps between the following groups.

Even nationally, Minnesota falls short of narrowing the achievement gap. The National Assessment for Educational Progress is a national testing protocol for reading and math achievement. For example, the 2007 NAEP math scores for 4th grade students reveal that:

  • 41 states have better math achievement rates that Minnesota for African American students
  • 41 states have better math achievement rates than Minnesota for Hispanic students
  • 38 states have better math achievement rates that Minnesota for Free and Reduced Lunch students
  • 41 states have better math achievement rates that Minnesota for Second Language students

This snippet of data leads to the strong conclusion that the achievement gap is currently devastating students in Minnesota public schools. Ask any teacher, principal or superintendent and they will readily confirm that the achievement gap one of the most compelling issues in Minnesota today.

I teach students how to become principals. One of my students, Aimee Fearing, works as an ELL teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. When I asked her what she would do as a school leader to overcome the achievement gap, she said that "schools must be staffed with the issue in mind. We must be committed to develop a staff that is committed to the purpose of narrowing the achievement gap that exists in our schools."

It is easy to get lost in the numbers when discussing the achievement gap, but it is important to remember that each number represents a Minnesota student who most likely will not realize his full potential because of our lack of commitment to eliminating the problem.

Is this acceptable? Do we Minnesotans have the insight to make the commitment necessary to help our schools narrow the achievement gap? Without such commitment, all the laws and assessments are meaningless. Are Minnesotans so spiritually bankrupt that they will simply give up on the poorest, most neglected among us?

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