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How to Close the Achievement Gap: NYT Editorial

George W. Bush campaigned for the presidency criticizing "the soft bigotry of low expectations," the dangerous mindset that allows black and Latino children to fall permanently behind white children who sit next to them in school. Closing this achievement gap should be a top national priority, not least because minorities make up more than a third of the public school population. But the education bills moving through Congress contain flaws that will make this goal difficult to achieve.

The proposals that President Bush originally sent to Congress were based on state reforms in Texas, which required schools to report student performance scores by race and income. Schools that allowed minority students to slip behind were given lower ratings than schools that kept minority students working up to grade level. The reporting system had the desired effect. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that in 1998 black eighth graders in Texas outperformed black students in every other state on the National Assessment's writing test, and outperformed white students in seven other states.

As the Texas experience suggests, the first essential step in closing the achievement gap is to identify data by race and income. In addition, it is important that tests administered at the state and local level be measured against a common benchmark, like the National Assessment's test. Otherwise they will not be useful for comparative purposes. Nor are they likely to be sufficiently rigorous.

The education reform bill passed last week by the House takes the vital first step of requiring the states to report achievement data by race and income. But the House bill also undermines a potentially effective system by allowing states to use less demanding benchmark tests that could be changed from year to year or from district to district, thus making it impossible to determine whether or not the achievement gap is being closed.

The version moving through the Senate has problems of its own, chiefly a convoluted formula that would allow the states to report average test scores, thus obscuring the true achievement gap. Congress will need to rectify these flaws if it wants to ensure that all children are well educated.

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