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Which Achievement Gap?

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The terms "achievement gap" and "AYP" are often bandied about in this era of NCLB. But is making AYP the same as closing the achievement gap? And shouldn't we be talking about multiple achievement gaps? The authors explain the finer points of these terms that are driving so much of today's education policy.

FROM the halls of Congress to the local elementary school, conversations on education reform have tossed around the term "achievement gap' as though we all know precisely what that means. To some extent, of course, we do. As it's commonly used, "achievement gap" refers to the differences in scores on state or national achievement tests between various student demographic groups. And the gap that has been a long-standing source of the greatest concern is that between white students and minority students, although other groups have been brought into the picture by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Our present urgent concern with the achievement gap has a specific objective: improved achievement for all students. We want all boats to rise, but we want those lying particularly low in the water to rise faster.

Seems straightforward, right? Wrong. Trying to define and measure this gap in ways that are accurate, meaningful, and useful to policy makers, educators, and the public can be a humbling experience. As with many measurement issues, the devil is in the details. And the details here are highly consequential.

The adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements of NCLB are designed to expose achievement gaps between groups of students, ostensibly so that schools will make greater efforts to close the gaps over time. But making AYl1 is not the same thing as closing achievement gaps. The great hope - still far from being realized - is that, as achievement improves across all student subgroups, the gaps...