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Achievement Gap is Not a Term for our Time
I have had a long-standing pinch with the term achievement gap, though I struggled to articulate why—until I read a recent post by my fellow TFA alumna Camika Royal (Baltimore ’99), which helped me more fully explore that discomfort.
The term “achievement gap” first showed up in academic papers in the 1960s. It referred specifically to gaps in educational achievement between White and Black—then called Negro—students during desegregation in New Jersey. In coining the term, researchers were highlighting the need to expand educational opportunities for Black children, which was no doubt a good intention.
I think our intentions in using the term “achievement gap” are still good. But more than 40 years after they first appeared, something about those two words feels as outdated as the term Negro. So, just as we stopped calling Black people “Negroes” many years ago, I believe it’s time to find words that more accurately reflect our ever-diversifying and increasingly complex society.
I am a parent who lives in a state with the 49th lowest ACT scores in the country, and in a country that often under-performs other highly developed countries. I want my child’s successes and opportunities to be defined based on an absolute bar that will ensure every opportunity she wants and deserves—not based on how she performs relative to another ethnic or socioeconomic group.
(For what it’s worth, if I were to pick a relative bar, I should probably pick the highest performing group of students. In my community, Asian American students far outperform White students. But the term “achievement gap” is more often understood to mean the gap between students of color and White students.)
I also worry that all of the talk about achievement gap has made standardized tests into an unnecessary enemy. The term “achievement gap” provides fodder on both sides of the education debate to draw weird conclusions from otherwise meaningful test results. Over the years, standardized tests have highlighted a gap between how Black kids and White kids perform. As a result, a number of misguided people drew the conclusion that this gap is a reflection of intelligence. Others reached the conclusion that “some kids just aren’t good at testing.” While this is in no way an intentional outcome of using the term achievement gap, I do think when tests—then a term—start to consistently be used to identify a deficit in the outcomes of a group, the group is less inclined to be compelled by the test or the outcomes.
For the love of all that can be good and useful in standardized testing, if seeing the data led us to say, “we haven’t learned what we’re supposed to learn” as opposed to “we’re not performing as well as White students,” we might actually encourage students, teachers, and districts to work on ensuring students are learning what they are supposed to learn.
Which brings me to my final pinch with the term achievement gap: it is imprecise terminology. We’ve come to use it as short-hand. Some truly mean that Black and Latino kids achieve at lower levels than their White or wealthier peers. Some mean concretely the achievement gaps between poor kids and those in their wealthier community. Some don’t know what they mean at all. It is a buzz word.
Living in a state that is in the bottom ten in most educational outcomes, the term achievement gap can refer to many things. I’m increasingly hoping we will say what we mean, define student outcomes on absolute terms rather than relative terms, and send the term “achievement gap” back to the ’60s.