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Quantifying State-Level Academic Achievement Gaps

by Terry Spradlin - November 14, 2005

In September 2005, the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) at Indiana University Bloomington issued a state-level report that quantified the academic achievement gaps that persist in Indiana between subgroups of students. This report received extensive media coverage across the state and has contributed to the K12 education policy reform discussion policy makers and education leaders are having. The study entailed an in-depth analysis of a number of performance measures (in addition to state standardized testing) over time that could be replicated in other states to provide a clear picture of the extent of their achievement gaps. Following are the highlights of the CEEP report regarding the achievement gaps in Indiana.

The report, Is the Achievement Gap in Indiana Narrowing? provided the most complete picture of Indiana's achievement gap since a state review in 2003. Using multiple performance measures, CEEP researchers examined achievement disparities, or gaps, between subgroups of students by race/ethnicity, family income status, English proficiency, and special education needs.  Longitudinal data used in the study were obtained from the Indiana Department of Education, NCES, and the College Board. The report can be viewed at: http://ceep.indiana.edu/projects/PDF/Achievement_Gap_091405.pdf.

On the surface, public schools in Indiana can boast progress in a variety of important areas, including graduation rates, SAT and ACT scores, and performance on the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress Plus (ISTEP+), the state's standardized achievement test. A closer look at the data reveals alarming achievement gaps between the state's white and non-white students and between its poorest and wealthier students. Even more troublesome, despite the gaps at each grade level narrowing slightly over time, the gaps widen the longer these students remain in school. In releasing the report, my co-authors and I issued a challenge to a broad array of stakeholders, extending beyond educators, to take immediate action to resolve the achievement gaps and consider the education policy recommendations in the report.  Specifically, we called on state and local education leaders, legislators, business and industry, labor, clergy, parents, and others to take concrete steps to help reduce and eliminate the disparities in academic achievement.

The key findings of the report included,


ISTEP+ results over the last seven years for Grades 3, 6, 8, and 10 demonstrate modest improvements for most subgroups, yet the achievement gaps have narrowed only slightly and remain quite large.


When the percentage of students passing both the mathematics and English/language arts on ISTEP+ is examined, the achievement gaps in the 2004–05 school year widen from the elementary to the secondary grade levels.  For instance,

□ The gap between white and African American students in grade 3 was 25 percentage points, compared to 38 percentage points in grade 10.

□ The gap between white and Hispanic students in grade 3 was 22 percentage points, compared to 30 percentage points in grade 10.

□ The gap between students receiving free or reduced-price meals and students who paid full price in grade 3 was 24 percentage points, compared to a gap of 30 percentage points in grade 10.

□ The gap between limited English-proficient (LEP) and non-LEP students in grade 3 was 25 percentage points, compared to 34 percentage points in grade 10.

□ The gap between special education students and general education students in grade 3 was 33 percentage points, compared to 50 percentage points in grade 10.


Hispanic and African American high school students are under represented in participation on AP tests and complete the Core 40 or Academic Honors Diploma at a significantly lower ratean indication that these students are being tracked into lower level courses.  (For course and credit requirement descriptions for these diplomas go to: http://www.doe.state.in.us/core40/pdf/Core40DiplReqsComp.pdf.)

Once we quantified the extent of the achievement gaps and examined the trends for a narrowing of the gaps in Indiana, we turned our attention in the report to identifying effective strategies and policies for education leaders and policy makers to consider.  We conducted a literature review on best practices and examined case studies organized by the Council of the Great City Schools and the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative.  Dr. Suellen Reed, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, also shared her views on eliminating the gaps through a policy perspective letter that was included in the report. This information was used along with my 13 years of firsthand experience of working in the Indiana State House to formulate 11 observations and 10 recommendations that were appropriate for Indianas education policy context.  Here are a few of the observations and recommendations.


The achievement gaps have narrowed only marginally since the state embarked on a series of comprehensive school reform initiatives beginning in the late 1980s, including revisions to the school funding formula that resulted in increased spending on education.


State and local leaders must acknowledge and address the impact of such issues as high mobility rates, increasing levels of poverty, poor nutrition, and limited access to quality health care on student achievement. Effective economic development, fiscal management, and public health policies will help reduce the achievement gaps.


The governor and policy makers should not disregard or abandon successful reform efforts. The governor should work with the state superintendent, the Indiana State Board of Education, Indiana's Education Roundtable, and the Indiana General Assembly to immediately formulate strategic and cohesive education policies to address the achievement gaps. Measurable goals in closing the achievement gap must be identified.


Indianas Education Roundtable should review the comprehensive P-16 Plan for Improving Student Achievement (a long range plan adopted by the Education Roundtable in 2003), itemize accomplishments, and make a renewed commitment to pursue and fulfill its recommendations and the recommendations in the CEEP report.


State leaders should find the funding to support full-day kindergarten programs in the schools with the widest achievement gaps for at-risk students at an additional cost of approximately $27 million.


State and local education leaders should expand effective scientifically based reading programs to all elementary classes. Students who are not on grade level for reading at Grade 3 should have access to and participate in intensive intervention and remediation programs. If students remain below grade level for reading after the intervention, they should be considered for retention.


By the end of Grade 8, the average minority and low-income students lag behind their peers by three grade levels. The report urges further examination of suspension and expulsion policies in middle schools as well as an assessment of middle school student engagement.


Indiana's academic standards need to apply to all students. Hoosier teachers must avoid tracking groups of students into lower level courses and should place high expectations on all students in every grade level.

Though considerable time was spent sorting through and analyzing data, my colleagues and I acknowledge a few limitations in our approach.  One limitation of this report was that it did not address whether Indianas data are consistent with those nationally, which indicate that high-minority, high-poverty, and low-achieving schools have the highest concentrations of under-qualified teachers.  Furthermore, the report was published prior to the release of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, and the availability and inclusion of these data would have enhanced the NAEP achievement gap analyses included in the study. Finally, the study included the use of graduation rate data from the Indiana Department of Education based on an old NCES methodology that generates a dubious graduation rate, rather than the widely accepted model adopted by the National Governors Association that Indiana will begin using this year.

Most states have developed, in part due to the requirements of No Child Left Behind, user-friendly, web-based database systems that make the information for this type of report readily available.  In Indiana, the extent of the academic achievement gaps between subgroups of students have been quantified, and policy makers and educators are being called on to move beyond problem identification to problem resolution.  Although the state can build on recent academic success and broad K-12 reform initiatives implemented over the past six years, Indiana leaders must demonstrate the necessary leadership to act in a targeted and cohesive manner not only to meet the federal accountability requirements of NCLB, but to ensure that another generation of children is not destined to fail. This challenge is not unique to Indiana. All states would be well served to undergo a similar examination of their achievement gap problem.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 14, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12240, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 8:43:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Terry Spradlin
    Indiana University Bloomington
    E-mail Author
    Terry Spradlin is the Associate Director for Education Policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University Bloomington. CEEP promotes and supports rigorous program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. To learn more about CEEP, go to http://ceep.indiana.edu.
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