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Student Test Scores Rise But Achievement Gaps Persistcomment (0)

November 15, 2012

By Jim Williams

Last spring students in grades 3–8 of Alabama’s public schools took statewide tests of reading and math skills. The results were generally better than the year before and continued a pattern of progress that stretches back to 2005. However, Alabama still must close two persistent test-score gaps: between students from impoverished and more affluent backgrounds, and between black and white students. 

Student results on the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) are given a grade and tabulated by socioeconomic group to measure progress for all types of students. 

The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) looks at the percentages of students who score at Level 4 (in effect, make an “A”). This is important because the state’s grades are lenient. Alabama’s students must be prepared to compete in a national marketplace. That won’t happen if we set the bar too low.

PARCA also looks at results for white and black students, and for students from poverty and non-poverty backgrounds. This enables us to measure progress in eliminating well-known performance gaps between those socioeconomic groups. Enabling all types of students to succeed is crucial to Alabama’s economic development.

We find that substantial percentages of students are able to make A’s on the ARMT. The question is why others do not. 

For example, the fourth-grade math results for 2012 show that 73 percent of non-poverty students made an A, while only 50 percent of students from poverty backgrounds did so. While scores have been rising in both groups, this gap of 20 to 25 percentage points between the two groups has persisted over time. 

Reading results are similar. In the fourth grade 67 percent of white students made an A in 2012, as compared to only 39 percent of black students. Gaps of 25 to 30 percentage points between these two groups have persisted over time.

These large gaps in student results are not inevitable, and they do not occur in every school. In Mobile County’s George Hall Elementary School, where almost all students are black and from poverty backgrounds, 90 percent of fourth-graders made an A in math. In the all-white, all-non-poverty Mountain Brook Elementary School, 94 percent of fourth-graders did the same. In both schools very high percentages of students received A’s on both tests at all grade levels. 

Our goal must be to make such results the norm. Test scores for every school and school system in the state are available on the PARCA website (http://parca.samford.edu).

EDITOR’S NOTE — Jim Williams is executive director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Jim may be contacted at jwwillia@samford.edu.

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