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Closing The Achievement Gap - Banner



“...all of our progress as a high-expectation state is at risk unless we commit ourselves now to being innovative, flexible, and focused as never before. It is time for us to prioritize and to focus on only those things we know are working to close the achievement gap and help all students succeed.”

—Jack O'Connell, California Superintendent of Public Instruction

What is the achievement gap?

The current student achievement gap is a staggering state and national crisis. California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell's P–16 Council states that in California, the achievement gap is defined as the disparity between white students and other ethnic groups, between English learners and native speakers of English, economically disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged, and students with disabilities compared with students without disabilities.

California's public school population is immense, with more than 6.3 million students—2 million more than Texas, the next most populous state. California is also enormously diverse, with Hispanics or Latinos making up the largest student group. The state has the highest percentage of English learners (25 percent) in the nation and is near the top in the proportion of children living in low-income families (40 percent).

Student academic success, in California and the rest of the nation, is typically measured by how well students perform on standardized tests. Results from state and national tests administered over the past several decades have consistently shown that the academic achievement of African American and Hispanic or Latino students continues to lag significantly behind that of white and Asian students. Jack O'Connell's California P–16 Council reports that:

  • About 12 of every 20 white students in grades two through eleven were proficient in English–language arts on the 2006 statewide test compared with fewer than six of every 20 African American students, Hispanic/Latino students, or economically disadvantaged students. Fewer than three of every 20 students classified as English learners or receiving special education services scored at proficient or above.
  • Although nearly two-thirds of Asian students and more than half of white students were proficient in mathematics in 2006, only about five of every 20 African American students, six of every 20 Hispanic/Latino students or English learners, and about three of every 20 students receiving special education services met that performance standard.
  • The 2006 Academic Performance Index (API) of schools populated by African American, American Indian, Hispanic/Latino, and Pacific Islander students is significantly lower than the API of schools with predominantly white and Asian students at every level: elementary, middle, and high school. Latino/Hispanic elementary students had an API 147 points lower than their white counterparts. At the middle school level, the API for African American students was 180 points lower than for white students. And at the high school level, American Indian and Pacific Islander students each had an API about 100 points lower than white students.

Is poverty the main cause?

While poverty does contribute to the achievement gap, an analysis of California's 2007 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) data reveals that poverty does not totally explain why the performance of African American and Hispanic or Latino students lags behind. Student-reported data collected in 2004-06 by the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) indicates that school well-being—a positive learning climate characterized by environmental supports, safety, and school attachment—may also be a contributing factor to the achievement gap.

The CHKS data show that both academic performance and school well-being were lowest in schools with large proportions of African American and Hispanic or Latino students, as well as in low-income schools, which have high enrollments of both groups. The CHKS results suggest that the achievement gap may be narrowed by strengthening learning supports that foster caring adult relationships, high expectations, meaningful participation, safety, and connectedness in schools—all benefits that may be achieved through school/community partnerships.

What happens to students caught in the achievement gap?

The achievement gap in high school limits college, career, and life choices of many students. Without proper learning supports in place, dropping out will become a solution for some students. In 2006-07, California's overall dropout rate was 21.5 percent. The dropout rate is even higher among African American and Hispanic or Latino students. California's dropout rate for African American students in 2006-07 was 36.2 percent. Among Latino or Hispanic students, the 2006-07dropout rate was 27.4 percent. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that if current trends continue, there will be twice as many high school dropouts in the state in the year 2025 than there will be jobs for which they are qualified.

There is a tremendous loss of potential for students who do not finish school. Students who drop out of school are more likely to be unemployed, on government assistance, and cycling in and out of prison. Fifty percent of California prison inmates did not graduate from high school. According to the Department of Corrections, 52 percent of California's prison population reads below a seventh-grade level. It has been projected that by the 2012-2013 fiscal year, more money will be spent per year on incarcerating Californians than on educating them.

Is there an impact on our economy?

Nationwide, the economic impact of high school dropouts is sobering. Lower wages earned by the 23 million high school dropouts account for a $50 billion loss to the nation's economy. The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools, a report released in April 2009 by McKinsey & Company, states that "existing gaps in achievement impose the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession—one substantially larger than the deep recession the country is currently experiencing."

Male high school graduates are 68 percent more likely and female graduates are 50 percent more likely to be employed—and more likely to have jobs with health insurance and pension plans. Consequently, high school graduates earn higher incomes, translating into more state, local, and federal tax revenues. According to an August 2007 report by the California Dropout Research Project, an "average" high school graduate earns $290,000 more over a lifetime than a high school dropout.

State and local government agencies in California spend substantial amounts on health, criminal justice, and welfare services; however, the need for such public services decreases with higher levels of education. If California's high school dropout rate for a single year was reduced by 30 percent, the aggregate savings to state and local governments would be $1.9 billion, and social gains would amount to $13.9 billion.

The California Dropout Research Project reports that:

  • Less educated workers are more likely to suffer from heart conditions, strokes, hypertension, high cholesterol, depression, and diabetes, as well as from a range of behaviors that contribute to ill health, such as smoking.
  • The probability of incarceration for black male dropouts is at least 60 percent.
  • High school graduates are 20 percent less likely to be convicted of violent crimes than students who drop of school; 11 percent less likely to be convicted of property crimes; and 12 percent less likely to be convicted of drug-related offenses.
  • More than two-thirds of all high school dropouts will use food stamps during their working life.
  • High school graduates are 68 percent less likely than dropouts to be on any welfare program.

A sense of urgency

Closing the achievement gap is a civil rights issue that must be addressed with a sense of urgency. As California strives to make a difference in the education of low-performing students, all partners must be part of the problem-solving process. In a state as diverse as California, with a strong potential for global leadership, another generation must not grow up with the achievement gap as a fact of life.