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The Logical Flaw in the "Achievement Gap"
Written by Dr. Jeff Howard
Americans have long used the term "gap" as shorthand for troubling comparisons. The first I remember was the Missile Gap from the 1960s, describing an imbalance between the Russian and US arsenals, which was used to mobilize American public opinion in favor of massive military spending. The "achievement gap" is the gap of the moment in American education, and this is a good thing—a harsh light finally shining on the consistent underperformance of some groups of our children. The importance of achievement gaps in a competitive, global economy has been widely discussed, and I’m not going to repeat that discussion here. My purpose is more limited, and perhaps more fundamental: I want to challenge the concept itself.
"Achievement gaps" represent direct, simple comparisons, for example, between the academic performance of black or Hispanic students on the one hand, and white or Asian students on the other. People love to compare different groups; and since the gaps are large, they have the virtue of being dramatic and easy to understand. But there is a big problem: Defining the gap as the difference in performance between Group A and Group B presupposes that Group B is the appropriate standard of comparison. But what if the performance of Group B is only mediocre? Should mediocrity be the standard to which Group A aspires? Should Group B be satisfied with their mediocre performance?
While comparisons between groups may be of interest, I believe it is generally more useful to compare each group to the standard we hold for all. For this reason we have coined a new term: "proficiency gap." A proficiency gap is a measure of the shortfall in academic performance by an identifiable population group relative to an appropriate standard we have set for all of our children. If, for example, we set as our standard that ninety percent of our nation's children should score proficient or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and discover that only 30% of the children of Group A achieve this score, while 60% of the children of Group B do, then Group A has a proficiency gap of 60%, and Group B has a gap of 30%. In this analysis, both groups need to improve; but Group A clearly has a much more significant problem.
There are, indeed, some populations in the U.S. with significant proficiency gaps (relative to any reasonable target); they are predictable, severe, and very persistent—often, in fact, intergenerational. They are associated with the same population groups across the cities and towns of America: children of poverty, English language learners, African Americans, Hispanics, children with special educational needs. When children from these groups are present in numbers, we have come to expect that many will achieve at relatively low levels, and only a few will perform at the highest levels. When (as is often the case) they are concentrated in particular schools, these will be our underperforming, or chronically underperforming schools.
So allow me to make a formal proposal: Let's shift our discussion from achievement gaps to proficiency gaps, from now on. This shift is in no way meant to obscure the seriousness of our problem, or the difficulty correcting it. What I am proposing is actually tougher: a universal standard of comparison predicated upon the belief that virtually all of our children, from all groups and backgrounds, can reach world-class educational standards, and the expectation that we can get them there.
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