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Study: Achievement gap persists in Minnesota, rest of U.S.

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Mrs. Churchill's class
A new U.S. Education Department report shows that the achievement gap between black and white students persists nationwide, even though scores are getting better.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

A new report from the U.S. Education Department shows black students are scoring better in math and reading, but not enough to close a nationwide gap between them and white students.

The study also shows Minnesota has one of the nation's largest achievement gaps, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

The study looked at fourth and eighth-grade math and reading scores from a nationwide achievement test called the NAEP.

The test is scored on a 500-point scale. Of the students the study looked at, black students scored 26-to-31 points below white students in reading and math.

The study concludes that every state still has an achievement gap, but at least that gap isn't getting any bigger.  Fifteen states saw their gap shrink on fourth-grade math, but not a single state has narrowed the gap in eighth-grade reading.

The disparity, though, is not caused by black students getting worse.  Scores for blacks continue to improve, but they're also improving for white students. Researchers note it's hard to close the gap when everyone is improving.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has one of the nation's largest achievement gaps.  But again, that's not necessarily because blacks are slipping, according to Jim Angermeyr, the head of research for Bloomington schools.

"I think some people look at the gap and would assume that African-American students in our state don't do as well, for example, as they may in other states," Angermeyr said.  "And that isn't necessarily true.  The gap is more due to that extremely high score for the Caucasian population."

Take eighth-grade math, for example.  In 2007, the national average score was 31 points higher for whites than blacks.  But in Minnesota, that gap was 37 points; only four states had a larger gap than Minnesota.

But here's another way to look at those numbers.  Black eighth-graders in Minnesota actually did slightly better than the national average in math, while whites scored much higher than the national average -- thus the bigger gap.

That's the pattern for Minnesota.  Blacks score right around the national average and whites score above average.

Still, Ernest Davenport said that doesn't excuse the gap.  Davenport is a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies these NAEP test scores.  He said some states get complacent, something Minnesota should be careful not to do.

"If you look at NAEP scores, Minnesota doesn't do that badly," Davenport said. "And so they might say 'gosh, why should we do anything differently?  Our scores are, compared to the nation, we're doing fairly well.'  Yeah, but a large, substantial part of your population are not."

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren agrees, even though the fact that Minnesota has an achievement gap isn't new.

"I am determined that we're going to start to see this achievement gap shrink, and we're trying to put in place enough resources and support so our students can be successful," Seagren said. "We need to help our teachers, also.  But it does show we have a long way to go with our black students, and our other minority students for that matter."

Seagren said there are hopeful signs.  This year, on a different test - the MCA's - she said black and Latino third-graders showed big gains in math.  Seagren said she hopes this will translate into a smaller achievement gap next year, when those students take this national NAEP test.

The report does not draw conclusions about the reasons for the nation's achievement gap, though it notes poor children have lower scores and that disproportionate shares of minority students are poor.  Researchers say the socio-economic gap is present even before children start school.