Closing the achievement gap: in-and-outside the classroom

While the achievement gap in education is pervasive; the Madison Metropolitan School District is determined not to be a part of the problem and is making progress closing that gap in-and-out of the classroom.

By Nash Weiss

Everyone from presidents to teachers has tried addressing it, yet it persists, dictating the futures of children in America.

However, achievement gap in education affects students everywhere, including Madison, Wisconsin.

The achievement gap refers to the disparity in academic performance among groups of students. The achievement gap shows in various indicators of academic performance, including grades, standardized-test scores and graduation rates.

Low-income and minority students are less academically successful than peers who are wealthier and/or white, according to the National Education Association. Nearly half of the students enrolled at Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) schools are low-income and over half are a racial minority, many fall into both categories.

Despite this, MMSD is determined not to be a part of the problem and is making progress closing that gap in-and-out of the classroom.

Eric Grodsky, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and expert on disparities in education, explained that schools are often blamed for producing the achievement gap, but in reality, they bear the brunt of educating children to the same level despite factors outside of the classroom.  

“When people look at achievement inequalities, they default to the schools are doing something wrong,” he said. “They’re not producing [the achievement gap].”

Inside the classroom

Undoubtedly low student-to-teacher ratios, along with talented teachers, are important factors in educating successful students and closing the achievement gap.

Beginning with this school year, the Achievement Gap Reduction (AGR) Program was fully implemented in many elementary schools throughout Wisconsin, including Madison schools.

Schools participating in the program receive additional funding for implementing one or more of three strategies in kindergarten through third grade classrooms: one, one-on-one tutoring provided by a licensed teacher; two, instructional coaching for teachers provided by a licensed teacher; or three, maintaining 18-to-1 or 30-to-2 classroom ratios and providing professional development on small group instruction.

Last school year 13 out 15 MMSD elementary schools with a student population of 50 percent or greater coming from low-income families took advantage of program. Those same elementary schools also have the most students of color.

Many of these schools previously took advantage of the AGR program predecessor, the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program, which worked for improvement in standardized testing.

Targeting instruction based on assessments is another piece of the puzzle for closing the achievement gap.

“Some assessments like MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) that districts use are designed to monitor learning gains over the course of the year and ideally to give teachers information to target instruction to places where kids have some needs,” Grodsky said.

While testing usually does not top the list of things students like to do at school, regular MAP testing at Madison schools seems to be paying off.

Madison fifth graders are up 10 point improvements overall, with African-American students leading the way at 13 point improvements in reading proficiency, according to district data. Additionally, low-income students are up 12 point improvements.

Outside the classroom

While ultimately it’s the students themselves who are closing the achievement gap by performing better academically, there are many people and organizations outside the classroom bolstering student success.

Madison Board of Education member Dean Loumos explained that addressing the achievement gap is about getting to the root of the why students aren’t achieving, which often has nothing to do with the what’s happening inside the classroom.

“We have to consider the whole child and look at root causes of what’s really going behind why they’re not achieving,” Loumos said. “It has nothing to do with their abilities or intelligence level; it has much to do with what’s going on in the community and the trauma that they’ve been involved in or witnessed.”

Last school year 48 percent of students were low-income, according to MMSD data. Low-income levels are associated with greater levels of violence, poor health and food insecurity — a major issue in Madison.

Students with food insecurity are more likely to score lower on measures of arithmetic skills, have repeated a grade and to experience psychosocial stress, according to the Public Health Department of Madison and Dane County.  

This is where outside organizations come into play, according to Loumos.

“Community partners are imperative in the success of helping our kids get what they need to succeed in school so that they can move on to be successful in college, career or community,” he said.

Madison-area Out-of-School Time (MOST) program embodies the idea that closing the achievement gap can happen outside the classroom too. The mission of the citywide collaboration between MMSD, the City of Madison, Dane County and 40 different youth organizations is to ensure all Madison’s children have access to comprehensive, high-quality out-of-school time programs.

The program matches children with organizations that provide community, recreation and support before and after school. All of these organizations support positive youth development, educational achievement, and/or career, college, and community readiness, according to MMSD.

Organizations include: Urban League of Greater Madison; Madison Schools and Community Recreation; First Tee, Boys and Girls Club of Dane County; Wisconsin Youth Company, Goodman Community Center; Maydm, Madison Starlings; Lussier Community Education Center, among numerous others.

Positive outcomes

Five years ago the MMSD implemented a strategic framework to address the achievement gap and other issues in the district’s schools.

So far the framework has been measurably successful. Reading and math MAP scores are up for African-American students, as are four-year graduation rates by 20 percentage points. Improvements have been seen for low-income students with increases in GPA and enrollment in Advanced Placement courses.

Overall, the four-year graduation rate is up from 78 percent to 85 percent, with notable increases for Hispanic/Latinos and low-income students.

Pushing further

Although MMSD’s strategic framework has proven effective at closing the achievement gap and reaching other district-wide goals, Loumos said the board of education wants to push further.

“No one by any means is satisfied because we sure would like to speed this up,” he said.

Currently, the district’s strategic framework contains three updated main goals that will be reassessed on an annual basis. All three look to maintain a thriving educational experience for all students, however, one specifically targets the achievement gap.

The goal of “African-American children accelerate in school,” which is measured by various proficiency levels and includes advanced coursework participation, aims to continue closing the achievement gap between black students and the white peers.

MMSD has five major “levers” for tackling these goals. Like learning and closing the learning gap, these levers incorporate people and organizations that are in-and-outside the classroom.

The old adage goes, “It takes a village,”— and closing the achievement gap in Madison schools is no exception.


The achievement gap and English language learners

English language learners (ELL) are disproportionately affected by the achievement gap, but that demographic is often not teased out in studies that focus on low-income and minority students. 

The number of ELL students enrolled in public schools is on the rise, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, making attention to ELL students crucial in closing the achievement gap. 

A National Assessment of Academic Progress study found that ELL students in fourth and eighth grade are below the national average for reading scores by approximately 50 points on a 500-point scale. 

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) has been specifically monitoring the progress of ELL students since implementing its strategic framework five years ago.

Madison ELL students are up 17 point improvements in Measures of Academic Progress tests, the most of any demographic group the school has been measuring. Additionally, the ELL graduation rate is up 9 percent with an overall graduation rate of 80 percent, which is above the district-wide graduation rate, according to district data. 

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