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Achievement Gap 101

In 1950, four years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, fewer than 20 percent of African-Americans had finished high school. By 2005, fewer than 20 percent didn't have a high-school diploma.

Those numbers tell a remarkable success story, but an unfinished one. For decades, the nation made steady progress in reducing the achievement gap between black and white students. But the gap has never been closed, and the goal of eliminating it remains a distant one.

The National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, is the closest thing the United States has to a national test. African-Americans have made steady progress on it since 1971. But so have white students, and while the gap between them narrowed through the 1970s and 1980s, progress stalled in many areas in the 1990s. Since then, progress has been slow, and for some groups, the gap has actually widened.

The picture for Hispanic students and children from poor families is much the same: steady progress over time, but these students still lag behind their white and more affluent classmates in virtually every measure of academic achievement, from kindergarten to graduate school.

Equally troubling is the fact that in some cases — Hispanics students in reading, for example — the achievement gap is narrowest in the fourth grade, then gradually widens as students progress through the system. As some critics of public schools have pointed out, the more time that poor and minority students spend in these schools, the farther behind they get.

The No Child Left Behind law signed by President Bush in 2002 makes closing the achievement gap a national priority. It calls for states to measure the performance of every school's students and for schools to be held accountable.

No longer would schools be able to mask lagging progress of minorities by reporting only average scores for all students. For the first time, the federal government requires schools to show improvement in the performance of specific subgroups of students: racial and ethnic minorities; special-education students; and those still learning English.

Schools that don't show improvement among all of these groups of students can find themselves identified as failing, which makes them eligible for extra assistance to help them get test scores up. And schools that over the course of several years fail to show improvement could face drastic restructuring.

Five years in, however, it's still too early to tell whether the law is having much of an effect. In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush said that because of the law, "students are performing better in reading and math, and minority students are closing the achievement gap."

Well, sort of. The White House cited improved scores of African-American and other minority students in some grades and subjects. In fourth-grade reading, for example, the achievement gap narrowed between 2003 to 2005 to its lowest level ever.

But for eighth-graders, the gap remained unchanged between 2003 and 2005. And in other grades and subjects, the improvements are incremental.

Five years into No Child Left Behind, progress toward closing the gap remains mixed, at best. The law's stated goal — that all children will be proficient in reading and math by 2014 — seems unlikely to be met, as the list of schools failing to reach their targets grows every year.

Nonetheless, supporters of the law say that doesn't mean its aims should be abandoned. More than 50 years after Brown v. Board, equality of achievement remains the biggest challenge in public education.

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Steve Drummond
Steve Drummond is a senior editor and executive producer at NPR who has held a variety of roles in more than two decades at the network. Since its launch in 2014, he has headed the education reporting project, NPR Ed. The nine-member team provides deep, comprehensive coverage of learning and education and extends that reporting to audiences across many platforms. In 2018, the team launched the Student Podcast Challenge. Now in its fifth year, the national contest has received podcast entries from more than 50,000 students in grades 5-12, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 2021 a college version was added that offers a $5,000 scholarship to the grand-prize winner.