Education Watch: Tracking achievement, attainment, and opportunity in America’s public schools

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The 52-report series from The Education Trust is a tool for measuring the impact of federal stimulus funding on improving the academic opportunities and outcomes for all of our nation’s students

Publication date: 
March 31 2009 (All day)

WASHINGTON (March 31, 2009) – Last month, Congress made an unprecedented commitment to America’s public schools, passing the single biggest increase in federal education funding in our nation’s history. As the U.S. Department of Education begins to distribute the one-time funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the onus is on states to live up to that challenge and ensure that this investment boosts overall achievement and closes gaps.

To measure how effectively states are using the infusion of federal support, the public will need accurate, reliable data. The Education Trust’s Education Watch series, released today, assembles some of the most critical indicators of student achievement, attainment, and opportunity, providing a state-by-state snapshot of public education in America.

The data in these reports and the accompanying “quick look” chart mark the starting line in America’s “Race to the Top” – the federal effort to provoke bold, enduring progress in education. Education Watch reveals which states are farthest along the course, which are gaining on those leaders, and which are barely out of the starting blocks. Throughout the duration of ARRA spending, The Education Trust will provide updates on state progress as new data become available.

These reports reflect the most up-to-date information available across states. While some states may have more recent data on their own schools and reform efforts, Education Watch uses only data that are consistent across states. This allows for accurate comparisons and the ability to identify and learn from the leaders on each indicator. While no state is yet where it needs to be, especially in terms of educating lower income students and students of color, some are doing a much better job than others.

For example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP):

  • Delaware posted the biggest gains in fourth-grade reading performance for African-American, Latino, and lower income students. Delaware’s scores are up by 24 points for African Americans, 42 points for Latinos, and 25 points for lower income students since 1998.
  • In eighth-grade math, Massachusetts leads the nation in gains overall since 2000, and was among the top gainers for Latinos and lower income students. However, state improvement among African-American students (6 points) lagged significantly behind the national average (16 points), resulting in a widening of the performance gap between African-American and white students. Massachusetts was one of just two states in which an achievement gap between student subgroups grew larger.
  • Louisiana is the only state in which the gap between African-American and white students has narrowed significantly in both fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.

Though each state is different, common patterns emerge from these NAEP data, indicating just how far we have to go to ensure that all young Americans have equal access to a high-quality education— especially lower income students and students of color, who now comprise almost half of all students in our nation’s public schools. Student performance is too low overall, varying dramatically between student groups, and the pace of improvement is far too slow.

“These reports provide a sobering look at the challenging work that lies ahead,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “One thing is clear: To secure our economic future, we must confront educational inequities head-on and ensure that every school in America is ready to help every student advance further, faster. The federal dollars are not a license to do business as usual; they come with a demand for change. We will never have this opportunity again, so the pressure is on for states to invest big in what works for kids and stop supporting the policies and programs that simply aren’t getting the job done.”

When evaluating student achievement data, many people are quick to attribute performance to the home lives of students. But the variation of results among states for the same groups of students proves that what happens in school matters immensely.

That’s why the Education Watch data on opportunity in education offer a valuable way to compare student achievement, taking into account the level of resources available to each student group. A look at these data show that lower income students and students of color—the ones who most often come to school with less—are consistently and systematically provided with less of everything that research and experience tell us matters most in school: less access to well-prepared, effective teachers; less access to challenging curriculum; and less funding.

For example:

  • In Colorado, Latino students represent 20 percent of the state’s 11th and 12th-grade students. But just seven percent of the students taking Advanced Placement exams in Calculus, English Language and Composition, and Biology are Latino.
  • Schools in Pennsylvania’s high-poverty districts have $1,153 less to spend per pupil than schools in the state’s more affluent districts.
  • In only three states—California, New York, and Indiana—does need-based state aid intended to help lower income families pay for college amount to more than 20 percent of the average tuition costs at the states’ four-year colleges and universities.

“The fact of the matter is that every state must do better for all of its young people. And we can’t patiently wait for progress to just happen on its own,” said Haycock. “We need to have the courage to profoundly reshape and rethink America’s public schools. ARRA cannot just be about protecting jobs in the short term. It also must be about protecting our economic future in the long term by protecting the interests of our nation’s students.”