Focus on achievement gap hurts students

According to AnnArbor.com, over the past six years Ann Arbor Public Schools paid a firm $441,000 of taxpayer money to consult with the district on addressing the achievement gap. Yet for all the money spent, 27 of 33 Ann Arbor schools were recently cited for failing to meet the state of Michigan’s standards.

While it is certainly undesirable that black and Latino students consistently score significantly lower than their white classmates on standardized tests, the hyper-focus on closing this gap is a waste of time and is causing far more harm than good.

Of course, saying we should stop spending so much time, money and attention on largely failed attempts to improve the test scores of black, Latino and socio-economically disadvantaged students will cause many of my progressive, lefty comrades to gasp reflexively.

But while I agree the focus on bringing the lowest scoring students to the level of their higher-scoring classmates (therefore bringing the test scores of all minorities closer to equality with those “high-achieving” whites) seems like a worthy cause, a different view emerges when you examine the real effects of such a singular vision on the very students it is aiming to help.

Even the term achievement gap itself is a dubious phrase, one that semantically blames the victims – black and Latino students – for their perceived failure to “live up” to the test scores set by white students.

It implies that if the white students are testing at a certain level, there must be something wrong with those who are testing lower. It doesn’t account for their varying socio-economic conditions or the ways in which the tests may be written. It strikes fear that perhaps we’re not as far away from ideas of racial inferiority as we would like to believe, even when it’s cloaked in well-meaning language.

During the George W. Bush administration’s attempt at bridging this gap with the No Child Left Behind Act, many “failing” schools were forced to neglect art, history, music, physical education and even science in order to zero in on math and reading.

Because who really needs science?

The intense focus on proficiency in math and reading so a child of a certain color can score higher on a test so the gap between numbers on a report divided by race will be smaller is an appalling perversion of educational goals.

Standardized tests do not judge a student’s complex thinking skills or the practical application of knowledge. They do not encourage creativity, but instead reward memorization and test-taking strategies.

In the end, these tests don’t really tell us anything about where black, Latino or white students are in their development. They just tell us how well they’re doing on a test that their teachers have been forced to teach to.

Offering students enriched educational experiences that teach them how to ask questions, understand concepts behind what they’re being taught and develop razor-sharp critical thinking skills is the best way to ensure that students from all backgrounds receive an education that prepares them for a successful future, not just the ability to fill in the correct oval with a razor-sharp No. 2 pencil.


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