Standards Are Not the Cause of Worsening Achievement Gaps

Adam Edgerton
Thursday, June 8, 2017


There is troubling news from my home state of North Carolina that claims the adoption of Common Core worsened the achievement gap between Black and White students. But I’m not convinced that is the right narrative or reference point. Achievement gap language is decades old and in need of a more nuanced reboot from popular media. It seems irresponsible to mention race in isolation without also discussing the importance of not only family income but also school resources and specific school expenditures on academic achievement. This worsening gap in North Carolina may, in fact, be revealing the amount of increased investment required by the new standards to shift instruction and actually prepare students for future college and career success. Or, it may be revealing a need to change the structure of school finance.

When it comes to standards-based reform, there is no substitute for time-intensive, high-quality professional development (PD). Teachers not only need quality PD in steady doses but also must believe that it is useful and meaningful to their practice. As C-SAIL continues its implementation study, we are finding that districts that tried to take an easier way out – by providing resources without sustained PD, to give one example – are suffering in their implementation of the standards. This might be what is happening between differently resourced schools in North Carolina and elsewhere. The resource gap between schools may be becoming more significant since more resources are required to successfully implement the standards. The old standards were less rigorous, less expensive, and so it was easier to prepare students for the tests. We’ve fixed some of those problems, so we can now see once again the inequity that persists in our educational system.

If the most disadvantaged students are doing more poorly on the new tests, then aren’t they telling us that the older tests were obscuring inequity?

It seems odd to treat these findings as a cause for rejection of new college- and career-readiness standards. If the most disadvantaged students are doing more poorly on the new tests, then aren’t they telling us that the older tests were obscuring inequity?  We have a long track record of throwing out and watering down tests that we don’t like. Prior periods of reform generated enthusiasm for performance-based tests. But in reality, all students tend to do better on multiple-choice tests compared to more authentic or performance-based assessments, and gaps between types of students actually increase when moving away from multiple-choice exams.  Ultimately, no administrator wants to see scores decline, and no legislator wants to see gaps to worsen.

One policy solution could be more money to underperforming schools for standards-based PD and possibly more taxes, which is hardly popular either. And simply throwing money at a problem often fails to result in a solution – it matters how the money is spent. In deference to the common rhetoric of local control, both states and districts may be hesitant to tell schools exactly how to spend money. This attitude may put all parties at a disadvantage. A lack of specificity in how schools spend money may lead to wide variations in quality, which can, in turn, undercut arguments that schools make about needing resources. But it’s worth remembering that one of the strongest original rationales for school-based accountability was to provide data to justify more resources towards our neediest students. Unfortunately, No Child Left Behind and its multiple-choice tests also caused excessive test preparation, gaming the system and narrowing of the curricula. And some schools have been able to close gaps by focusing heavily on test preparation. It’s no surprise, then, that more complex tests and standards erase these gains.

Instead of treating the standards as a cause of widening achievement gaps, we would be much better off focusing on the deeper causes of the gaps in the first place. 

Throwing out more rigorous standards is like throwing out your scale because you don’t like how much you weigh. You can still look in the mirror and have a rough estimate of your current shape and size without the scale, just as we can look at under-resourced schools and disadvantaged populations and predict achievement on common variables. Making standards less rigorous doesn’t change what’s in the mirror. Students with fewer advantages who have endured more hardships may need even more resources, and their teachers may need more PD over long periods of time, particularly in high poverty schools with high turnover. The standards and high-quality aligned assessments provide a yardstick to identify problems that need to be solved in terms of achievement gaps. The solution may or may not require increased budgets; it may require mandating more specifically how schools spend money on professional development. Neither of these solutions may be politically popular, but money matters only if wisely spent.

Instead of treating the standards as a cause, we would be much better off focusing on the deeper causes of the gaps in the first place. After all, throwing out the scale doesn’t make your clothes fit any better.