Report: Race, wealth remain factors in state achievement gap

White students in Connecticut are about four times more likely to earn advanced scores on academic achievement tests than minorities, according to a new report co-authored by a University of Connecticut professor.

The report, "Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and the Persistence of America's Permanent Talent Underclass," shows that the gap between the advanced achievement of whites and blacks is the most pronounced, a nearly 5-1 ratio in Connecticut, while the imbalance between whites and Hispanics is more than 4-1.

Achievement gaps between well-off students and those requiring economic assistance also are strikingly high and growing, according to the report co-authored by UConn's Jonathan Plucker. In the most recent test year available, 2011, well-off students in Connecticut outdistanced those getting free or reduced-price lunches by a nearly 5-1 ratio in terms of high test scores.

"The current study should crush anyone's optimism about the country's success in developing academic talent," said Plucker, who works at UConn's Neag School of Education. "The data we explored for this report, along with a growing body of research, provide considerable evidence that America has a permanent talent underclass."

The study released Tuesday is a follow-up to a 2010 report by Plucker and colleagues, including Nathan Burroughs of Michigan State University, that found a similar achievement gap among top-scoring students. Three years ago, the academicians had suggested that the achievement gap might narrow as time went along, but mastery tests in Connecticut and nationwide show the opposite may be true.

In Connecticut, the fourth-grade achievement gap in the most recent test year was 17 points between high-scoring whites and Hispanics and 18 points between whites and blacks, about the same as the gap three years ago. But the state's eighth-grade reading gap for high performers was about 30 points between whites and minorities — far higher than the 23 points seen three years previously.

By the 10th grade, the reading gap moderated somewhat — to 24 points between whites and blacks and 21 points between whites and Hispanics — returning to about the same level seen three years previously.

"While a great deal of attention and resources have been focused on the achievement gap among students, which measures basic proficiency in subjects like math and reading, almost none have been devoted to the 'excellence gap' at the highest achievement levels," according to a summary of the report provided by UConn.

In Connecticut, 41 percent of white students scored at the advanced level in reading during their eighth-grade year. This compares with 10 percent of blacks and 12 percent of Hispanics.

In math, 41 percent of white students in eighth grade scored in the advanced range, while only 9 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics had high scores.

"If the diversity of our school-age population isn't represented among our high-achieving students, we can make the argument that we've failed to achieve either equity or excellence, with serious implications for America's future," Plucker said in a statement.

Connecticut's scores were significantly above ranges seen nationwide, according to the report, which compiled national and state assessment data.

In national testing, high achievement in math was obtained by 9 percent of white students in the most recent testing — a significant boost from 2.9 percent gaining top scores in the early years of assessments. But the percentage of black students with high scores in math remained mired at 1.1 percent in recent testing, not much of an improvement over the years.

An even more dramatic look at the achievement gap could be seen in examining the differences between poor and well-off students in nationwide math testing between 1996 and 2011. Students eligible for lunch assistance saw a boost in advanced-achievement scores from 0.3 percent to 1.8 percent in math during this period. But students from wealthier families enjoyed a much bigger gain in advanced achievement, from 3.1 percent to 11.4 percent.

"In an age of increasing global competitiveness, it is somewhat harrowing to imagine a future in which the largest, fastest-growing segments of our K-12 student population have almost no students performing at advanced levels academically," the report concluded. "In many states, including many of our largest, this is already the reality."

l.howard@theday.com

Report offers suggestions for policy changes

Jonathan Plucker of the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education and his colleagues, authors of “Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and the Persistence of America's Permanent Talent Underclass,” suggested several policy changes to focus on closing the achievement gaps identified in the report. Among the suggestions were:

• Require states to report on the performance of advanced students to highlight racial and socioeconomic differences.

• Consider allocating federal money for educating top-tier students.

• Reassess current state policies for helping high achievers.

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