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New Study of 70,000 NYC Kids Shows Achievement Gaps Widening Over Time — Except for Asian Students

By David Cantor | December 5, 2017

Racial and ethnic achievement gaps in New York City public schools worsened over time, a new study using state test results has found, with Asians students improving in both reading and math between third and fifth grade while white students held steady and black and Hispanic students fell further behind.

Measured in standard deviations, test-score gaps between white and black students were already .53 in ELA and .54 in math in third grade, and grew to .73 and .85, respectively, over five years.

Gaps between white and Hispanic third-grade students of .62 in ELA and .50 in math grew to .69 and .73. (For context, researchers estimate that one standard deviation is the difference in performance between average fourth- and eighth-graders.) These gaps narrowed substantially, however, when researchers took into account factors like poverty and school segregation.

The study, released today by the city’s Independent Budget Office, followed 71,350 students who entered third grade in the 2008–09 school year through 2013–14, the last year for which data were available. In addition to measuring differences in learning, the IBO found that black and Hispanic students were more frequently and severely suspended and were more likely to be classified as having disabilities.

They also disproportionately repeated grades — suggesting that the study, which was limited for data reasons to those who advanced each year — underreported the size of the city’s achievement gaps.

“Our report documents the presence of significant racial achievement gaps among third grade students in 2008–2009, which widened over time as students progressed through elementary school and then middle school,” the IBO says. “This was true in both reading and mathematics, and true if one looks at high-performing and low-performing students separately.”

Past research has found that black students “lose substantial ground” in the first years of school.

The study’s piece of good news is the continuing high achievement of Asian students, who comprise about 15 percent of the city’s enrollment and often come from low-income families: 77 percent are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch (as are 90 percent of Hispanic students, 85 percent of black students, and 48 percent of white students). Asian students trailed their high-achieving white peers in ELA by .04 in third grade, but by eighth grade they were outpacing white students by .17 standard deviation units. In math, they widened a .21 gap to .31.

In addition to tracking performance by race and ethnicity, gender, income, and learning needs, the study followed students who’d scored in the top and bottom 25 percent on their third-grade tests. Over time, the percentage of both of low- and high-performers held nearly steady, with slight declines at the high end. Girls consistently performed better than boys, particularly in ELA. Fifty-five percent of Asian girls scored in the top quartile in eighth-grade ELA, compared with 43 percent of boys.

“Among both black and Hispanic high-performers, the extent of relative decline in performance was almost twice as high for male students as it was for females,” the authors wrote. “Among high-performing Asian students, females gained more than their male counterparts.”

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When the IBO researchers controlled for student and school characteristics, white-Hispanic gaps were reduced by more than half in ELA and math. White-black gaps were reduced by half in ELA and about 60 percent in math.

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