Stuart Kerachsky
Acting Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics

National Assessment of Educational Progress
Achievement Gaps: How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress

July 14, 2009

Introduction

Good morning. Today I am releasing the National Center for Education Statistics report on achievement gaps. This report, using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), describes the differences in performance for Black and White students as they have changed over time, using national and state data for mathematics and reading.

While many NAEP reports have shown that, on average, White students tend to have higher average scores than Black students, today's report is the first to focus on the Black-White achievement gap at the state level. This report provides an accessible summary of gap data for every state—how the gaps stood in 2007 and how they've changed over time, based on the common yardstick of the NAEP assessments.

The report provides information on the relative size of the populations of Black and White students for each state, how the scores for Black and White students in each state compare to the national averages for those students, and how the size of a state's gap compares to the national gap. This gives us a more complete picture than can be obtained from national results alone.

In many states, scores have been increasing for both Black and White students but we do not see a lot of progress in closing the achievement gap. As this report will show, however, there is more to consider than simply the size of the gap. A small gap does not necessarily mean that students have achieved high performance; nor does a large gap necessarily mean that students' scores are low. And improving student performance, while desirable, does not always lead to closing the achievement gap.

The report contains national and state results from what we call main NAEP. At the national level, data at grades 4 and 8 in mathematics date back to 1990. For reading, results for both grades go back to 1992. For both reading and mathematics, the most recent results are for 2007. In addition to overall scores, the full report gives NAEP national results by gender and family income. The full report also has NAEP long-term trend results, which go back as far as 1978 but do not provide results for the states.

The state NAEP assessments were phased in over a period of years. Some states did not participate in NAEP's early assessments, so comparisons of results in 2007 to the early years are not available for those states. The state mathematics assessment began in 1990 at grade 8. In 1992 we added grade 4 mathematics and grade 4 reading at the state level. Grade 8 reading was added in 1998. In all cases, students participating in state NAEP took the main NAEP assessments, so we can compare state results to the national results.

Report Features

Since NAEP assessments include only public school students at the state level, this report is limited to results for public school students.

In the report we compare each prior assessment's results to 2007. For the most part, we only discuss comparisons of the earliest assessment with the most recent assessment, so the focus is on the overall trend lines.

We make gap comparisons using NAEP scale scores. We could make comparisons using the percentages of students at or above the Basic or Proficient achievement levels used in NAEP Report Cards. Because each achievement level covers a range of performance, however, changes in gap size that can be detected using average scores may not appear in the achievement level percentages.

Our state-level results actually include 52 jurisdictions, because we assess students in the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Schools along with the 50 states. A number of states do not have a sufficient number of Black students to report reliable scores, however, and, at grade 8, the District of Columbia does not have a sufficient number of White students.

Patterns of Gaps in NAEP

The reason the Black-White achievement gap exists is that a disproportionate number of Black students are low-performing compared to White students. The achievement gap can be reduced by increases in the scores of low-performing students or by declines in the scores of high-performing students, with the former, of course, being the desirable pattern. In fact, three principal patterns of performance over time between the two groups are most frequently observed across the states. First, in some states scores for both groups increased but Black students' scores increased more than those of White students, resulting in a narrowing of the gap. Second, the gap narrowed when Black students' scores increased while scores for White students did not change significantly. And third, in some states scores for both groups improved but the size of the gap did not change. There are other possibilities, of course, but these were the most prevalent. In no state was there a widening of the gap.

Today's presentation summarizes information on the Black-White achievement gap at the state level, but in the full report there are individual graphs for each state for each subject and grade. These graphs show trends in performance for Black and White students in each state, as well as the size of the gap in scores for each assessment year. The national trend line is shown on each state graph for purposes of comparison. Also shown are the proportions of students in the two race groups.

Because NAEP scores are based on samples, a margin of error is associated with each score. We use the asterisk symbol to indicate those differences that are larger than the margin of error, i.e., that are statistically significant.

2007 State Gaps Compared to the Nation

In mathematics at grade 4, the national performance gap between Black and White students was 26 points in favor of White students. The gap was significantly smaller than the national gap in 10 states: Alaska, Delaware, the Department of Defense schools, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. The gap was significantly larger in five states: Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. In the remaining states for which we have complete data, the gap was not significantly different from that of the nation as a whole.

In grade 8 mathematics, the gap was lower than the nation's in 12 states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, the Department of Defense schools, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina. The gap was larger in seven states: Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

In reading at grade 4, the gap in nine states was smaller than that for the nation: Arizona, Delaware, the Department of Defense schools, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia. The gap was larger in eight states: Arkansas Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

In reading at grade 8, nine states had a smaller gap than the nation's: Alaska, Delaware, the Department of Defense schools, Hawaii Kentucky, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and West Virginia. One state, Wisconsin, had a larger gap than the nation's.

Comparisons are not available for all states because in some states the size of the Black or White NAEP sample may be too small to obtain reliable results.

National Gaps Closing

In all four assessments (mathematics and reading at grades 4 and 8), scores were higher in 2007 than in the first assessment year for both Black and White students.

At grade 4, scores for both groups increased and the achievement gaps narrowed, for both reading and mathematics. This is an example of the first possible pattern of performance described above—score increases for both Black and White students, with a larger increase for Black students, resulting in a narrowing of the gap.

At grade 8 scores for both groups increased, but there was no significant change in the size of the gaps in either subject. This exemplifies the pattern of performance in which scores increased but the gap did not change significantly.

Mathematics State Achievement Gap Results

Now we're going to look at state results, beginning with mathematics.

At grade 4, comparing results from the first state assessment in 1992 with those for 2007, average scores for both groups of students increased in all 35 states that participated in both assessments and in which results could be reported for both Black and White students. For 15 of those 35 states, the gap in 2007 was narrower than in 1992. In all 15 states, the score increase for Black students was larger than the increase for White students.

At grade 8, we observed almost the same pattern in score increases—in 26 of the 28 states for which we have data, scores were higher in 2007 than in 1990 for both Black and White students. In two states—Nebraska and Wisconsin—scores for White students increased while scores for Black students did not change significantly. The score increases for White students were not sufficient to cause a significant increase in the gap in either state.

At grade 8, the achievement gap narrowed in four states—Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas—comparing 2007 to 1990. Again, in all four states, the score increases for Black students were larger than the increases for White students.

Relationship of 2007 State Gaps to Academic Performance in Mathematics

Earlier, I compared the Black-White achievement gaps for the individual states in 2007 with the gap for the nation. How did Black and White students perform in those states in which the gap was larger or smaller than that for the nation, compared to the national average for each group?

For most states, the grade 4 mathematics gap was not significantly different from the national gap of 26 points. The gap was smaller, however for the 10 states mentioned above. Among these states, some of those with similar gaps had very different levels of performance. For example, Oklahoma had a gap of 22 points, while in Texas the gap was 23 points. However, Oklahoma does not otherwise look like Texas. Both Black and White students in Texas appear to do much better than their peers in Oklahoma, despite a comparable gap.

In both Hawaii and West Virginia, the gap was 14 points. However, in Hawaii the small gap was due to a high average score for Black students, while in West Virginia it was due to a low average score for White students.

The same relationship between gaps and average scores was observed for the five states that had a gap for grade 4 mathematics that was larger than the gap for the nation. In the District of Columbia, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, for example, average scores for Black students ranged from about 209 to 212, below the national average for Black students. Scores for White students in the District of Columbia and Wisconsin were above the national average for White students, while in Nebraska they were at or below it.

Looking at the overall average scores for these three states, the District of Columbia's average was below the national average, while Nebraska and Wisconsin were at or above it. This is because in the District of Columbia, Black students, whose scores were low, made up over 80 percent of the student population, while in Nebraska and Wisconsin they were 10 percent or less. The average scores for White students in these two states were high enough to bring the states' overall scores close to the overall national average.

In grade 8 mathematics, 12 states had a gap that was smaller than the national average of 31 points. Colorado is an example of a state with a small gap and Black and White students performing at or above the national averages for their peers, while Kentucky had a small gap and Black and White students performing at or below the national averages.

Seven states had a gap larger than the national average for grade 8 mathematics. In most of these states, Black students had scores below the national averages. However, in Maryland and Massachusetts, we see scores above the national averages for both groups of students, but a large gap as well.

Summary of State Mathematics Results

In mathematics between the first assessment and 2007, gaps in performance between Black and White students persisted in every state, although they narrowed in 15 states at grade 4 and in four states at grade 8. No state experienced a decline in scores for Black or White students and the great majority showed increases for both groups. In addition, the gap did not grow larger in any state.

As I have noted, it is important not only to consider the size of the gap and whether gaps are closing, but how well both Black and White students are performing in terms of the location of their scores on the NAEP scale. In mathematics, scores for both groups have been rising in most states. It is encouraging to see scores of Black students increase; for gaps to close, however, their scores must improve more than White students' scores. And, in fact, this is how the gaps narrowed for mathematics at both grades 4 and 8.

Now I'll describe achievement gap patterns for reading in the states.

The profile of states for grade 4 reading comparing scores in 2007 with 1992 is quite different from that for grade 4 mathematics. Thirteen states had scores for both Black and White students that were higher in 2007 than in 1992. In two states—Mississippi and the District of Columbia—scores increased for Black students but not for White students. In 10 states, scores for White students were higher, while scores for Black students did not change significantly. In the nine remaining states there was no significant change in scores for either group.

The gap for grade 4 reading narrowed in three states—Delaware, Florida, and New Jersey. In all three, both Black and White students had higher scores in 2007 than in 1992, and Black students had larger score increases than White students. In no state did score changes result in a widening of the gap.

At grade 8, there was not a lot of change in scores in reading. Comparing 2007 with 1998, the first year the grade 8 reading assessment was given at the state level, scores increased for Black and White students in one state, Delaware. Scores increased for Black students only in Maryland, for White students only in Colorado and Missouri. Scores fell for Black students only in Oklahoma and for White students only in West Virginia. The gap did not narrow or widen in any state.

For grade 4 reading, nine states had a gap that was smaller than the national gap of 27 points. In four of these states—Delaware, Department of Defense Schools, New Hampshire, and Virginia—scores for Black students were above the national average for Black students while the average scores for White students were at or above the national average for White students. In the remaining states, scores for White students were at or below the national average for those students.

Eight states had a gap that was larger than the national gap of 27 points at grade 4. All of these states had average scores for Black students that were at or below the national average. Again, the District of Columbia had a high score for White students, resulting in a gap of 67 points.

At grade 8, nine states had gaps smaller than the national average of 26 points. For Department of Defense Schools, scores for both groups were higher than the national average for their peers. (In Hawaii at grade 8, the seven-point difference in scores was not statistically significant, so there was no gap for that state in 2007 for reading.)

At grade 8, there was one state with a gap larger than the nation, Wisconsin. Scores for Black students were relatively low, while scores for White students were at the national average. Wisconsin was the only state where gaps were larger than the national gap for both subjects and both grades.

For reading, the gap persisted in every state except Hawaii at grade 8. At grade 4, gaps narrowed in three states. At grade 8, gaps did not narrow in any state. In two states, there were score decreases for Black or White students. As in mathematics, no state had a widening of the gap. In the three states where the gap did narrow for reading, scores for both Black and White students increased, with Black students achieving a larger increase than White students.

Conclusions

There are a few overall conclusions we can draw from the report.

In considering NAEP results, it is useful to look beyond overall average scores. In considering gaps in student performance, it is important to be aware of where student performance lies on the NAEP scale as well as the size of the gap. Low-performing states can have small gaps, while high-performing states can have large ones.

For the most part, scores for both Black and White students have been increasing. This means that for the gap to narrow, scores for Black students must not only increase; they must increase more than the scores of White students.

This concludes my presentation. There is much more information in the full gap report itself, which is available on the NCES web site, http://nces.ed.gov. In conclusion, I would like to thank the students and schools who participated in NAEP, whose cooperation made this report possible.

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