To 'Close Gap,' Florida Flunked More Minority Third-Graders

K-12 Testing
Researcher Walter Haney has debunked claims that Florida is closing the racial achievement gap, showing that narrowing of test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) appears to be caused primarily by a massive increase in grade retention.

In August, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg coauthored a Washington Post opinion column touting their "successes" in closing race-based achievement gaps. Indeed, according to the 2005 NAEP results, Florida had shown remarkable improvement in 4th-grade results and appeared to have significantly reduced the gap between white and minority students.

Boston College Professor Walter Haney, however, looked at the NAEP scores on which Bush and Bloomberg based their claims and at Florida enrollment numbers. He found a troubling explanation for the apparent improvement: The state has been forcing unprecedented numbers of minority pupils to repeat third grade, on the order of 10 to 12 percent, meaning that fewer low-scoring students enter grade 4 at the normal age.

In a report titled, "Evidence on Education under NCLB (and How Florida Boosted NAEP Scores and Reduced the Race Gap)," Haney wrote, "It turns out that the apparent dramatic gains in grade 4 NAEP math results are simply an indirect reflection of the fact that in 2003-04, Florida started flunking many more students, disproportionately minority students, to repeat grade 3." Percentages of minority students flunked were two to three times larger than percentages of white children forced to repeat grade 3. Haney says this likely explains the striking decrease in the race-based score gap.

Haney notes that making students repeat a grade based on test scores has been shown by many researchers to be ineffective at improving achievement over the long term (see "Grade Retention," this issue). It does produce increased scores in the repeated grade, and in some studies it has shown to produce increased scores in the subsequent year or two. This means that students who enter grade four after spending a second year in third grade are likely to score somewhat higher than if they had not repeated grade 3. But within a few years any academic gains disappear, as Chicago researchers documented in that city (see Examiner, Spring-Summer 2004)

Haney concludes by recommending that a reauthorized No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law should require states and local education agencies to report grade progression ratios in addition to assessment results.

According to Haney, "rates of student progress through the grades are a more robust measure of educational quality than are test scores."