Though the term "achievement gap" was first used to reference something rather specific -- the difference between the standardized test scores of White and Black students -- it's now used quite broadly. I've heard "achievement gap" bandied about in reference to gaps in test scores and other measures of academic performance and outcomes between members of both different races and different classes. Which leads me to this question: can we close the achievement gap without closing the "achievement gap"?
In other words, is it possible to successfully raise the test scores of low-SES and minority students to the same levels as other students without actually solving the real problem? Every time I hear about another miracle school that closed a large portion of the achievement gap, I can't help but wonder this.
And I think the answer lies partially in how we conceptualize the achievement gap. Is the difference in test scores between different groups the actual problem, or just a symptom of the problem? For me, and I think for many others, it's the latter. The actual problem is that too many low-income children live in worse neighborhoods, attend worse schools, are less likely to graduate from high school or college, and are subsequently both more likely to have lower quality-of-life later on and to cost society by committing more crimes, relying more on welfare, etc. The causes of the difference in achievement are myriad, as are the causes of outcomes later in life -- less knowledge, as measured by standardized tests, are only one of many causes of worse academic and professional outcomes later in life.
If the problem goes beyond test scores, then how should we measure the "achievement gap"? Do test scores sufficiently capture the problem -- i.e. will a change in test scores beget a change in all the outcomes that concern us more? My gut feeling is that this won't necessarily happen. It's not hard to imagine a school in a poor neighborhood where students score well on tests, but are still much less likely to graduate from college, obtain prestigious jobs, etc. And that hypothetical worries me: what if we closed the achievement gap and nothing changed? Would we still pat ourselves on the back and move on?
Or perhaps we're looking at this the wrong way. Maybe changing achievement levels isn't our ultimate goal. Maybe we should be trying to close gaps in graduation rates or degree attainment. Or maybe we should be trying to close gaps in non-cognitive skills like self-control or executive function. Or maybe we should be trying to close gaps in content knowledge (which is different from, though related to, testing reading or math skills). Would closing any of these gaps be more meaningful than closing the test-score gap? I'm not really sure what the answer is. But I suspect that none of them are enough on their own.
To truly close the gap in academic performance and life outcomes, we probably need to close gaps in both academic achievement and a number of other areas. So if we're going to continue to say that we want to close the achievement gap, let's not define "achievement gap" too narrowly.