Many children (still) left behind

The achievement gap between white and minority students is as wide as ever

Published April 29, 2009 12:29PM (EDT)

An article in Wednesday's New York Times reaffirms something education scholars have been saying for years: No Child Left Behind, supposedly conceived to address racial inequality in education, has done nothing to decrease the achievement gap. Both white and minority students' test scores have improved in the past five years, but the chasm between the former and the latter remains as wide as ever. (And, as many educational researchers will tell you, it's possible the rising test scores have more to do with schools "teaching to the test" than actual gains in student learning.)

The Times mentions that black and Hispanic students' test performance has improved in the past 30 years ... but then points out that "most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law." Huh. So integrating schools is more effective than drilling students to death on basic skills? Who'da thunk it?

The situation becomes even bleaker when we compare the scores of 9- and 13-year-olds with those of their 17-year-old counterparts. It seems that while younger students are making modest gains in achievement, by the end of high school teens are testing as poorly as they did in the 1970s. In fact, the gap between black and white 17-year-olds may be the "equivalent of between two and three school years' worth of learning." So even if we believe that test scores accurately reflect learning, how useful is a program that can't maintain its progress throughout a student's educational career?

Of course, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings attempts to put a positive spin on these findings: “It’s not an accident that we’re seeing the most improvement where N.C.L.B. has focused most vigorously,” she told the Times. “The law focuses on math and reading in grades three through eight -- it’s not about high schools. So these results are affirming of our accountability-type approach.” That's funny. I didn't realize the act's full name was "No Child Left Behind Until High School (Then They're on Their Own)."

If there is some good news here, it's that the Obama administration is planning to bring N.C.L.B. up for reauthorization before the end of the year. This should give lawmakers the chance to rethink their approach. As the Times notes, current Education Secretary Arne Duncan "would like to strengthen national academic standards, tighten requirements that high-quality teachers be distributed equally across schools in affluent and poor neighborhoods, and make other adjustments."

While I'd love to see good teachers routed to at-risk schools, I (and the majority of scholars I have worked with in educational publishing) remain skeptical that higher standards and more assessment are the answer. It seems to me that we'll be stuck with this shameful achievement gap until we can reduce the number of students in class, start more after-school programs and make the kind of changes that don't just improve test scores but improve children's lives.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

MORE FROM Judy Berman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------