NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Our Achievement-Gap Mania

September 29, 2011

A decade ago, the No Child Left Behind Act ushered in an era of federally driven educational accountability focused on narrowing the chasms between the test scores and graduation rates of students of different incomes and races.  The result was a whole new way of speaking and thinking about the issue: "Achievement gaps" became reformers' catchphrase, and closing those gaps became the goal of American education policy.  But the truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged children in many ways, says Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

First, the focus on achievement gaps has encouraged exclusive attention for low-performing students to the detriment of the best-performing students.

  • In 2008, a research team asked teachers which students were most likely to get one-on-one attention, and found that 80 percent said academically struggling students, while just 5 percent said academically advanced students.
  • While this attention has led to gains in test performance for previously low-performing students, it has also caused plateauing in performance of their academically advanced peers.

Second, it has incentivized schools to push low-performing students into high-achievement programs, such as Advanced Placement (AP), to the detriment of the student.

  • While many laud the growth in the number of graduating students who had taken at least one AP test (1 million in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008), focus on this growth disguises underlying problems.
  • According to surveys performed in high-poverty schools, 34 percent of AP teachers believed "administrators [were] pushing unqualified minority or low-income students into AP" and 56 percent of AP teachers surveyed said that too many students were in over their heads.

Third, by allowing education reform to be driven solely by the needs of low-income, low-performance students, reformers rob themselves of the broad-based support necessary for the more radical restructuring.

Lastly, achievement gap emphasis and test score prioritization stifle innovation and narrow the scope of schooling.  Areas of study such as civics, foreign languages and music are increasingly set aside to maximize time for math and reading.

Source: Frederick M. Hess, "Our Achievement-Gap Mania," National Affairs, Fall 2011.

For text:


Browse more articles on Education Issues