Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The "Receivement Gap": School Tracking Policies and the Fallacy of the "Achievement Gap"

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The "Receivement Gap": School Tracking Policies and the Fallacy of the "Achievement Gap"

Article excerpt

Closing the racial achievement gap has been a cornerstone of recent education reform, especially as accountability measures are increasingly relied upon to drive academic performance standards. This article questions the term "achievement gap" and its implication that White students perform better on standardized tests due to greater effort and ability. The term "receivement gap" is offered as an alternative due to its focus on structures, not students, and inputs instead of outputs. Evidence is drawn from a qualitative project using a case study design with seven African American high school students in tracked mathematics and English classes. Results indicated differential treatment by school personnel as early as elementary school that influenced students' later school performance. Accordingly, research supports the recommended term "receivement gap," which is offered in the hope of inspiring a deeper and more nuanced discussion of factors that influence student achievement and distort the achievement of African American students.

Closing the achievement gap has been the focus of both academic and popular dialogues on education reform, argued about in congressional offices and teacher's lounges, discussed on CSPAN and Oprah. Concern about Black-White disparities in academic performance on standardized tests has garnered attention at the highest levels and was even made one of President Bush's primary targets in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2002), the largest and most sweeping federal education reform initiative since the 1960s (McGuinn, 2006). The racial achievement gap, defined as the observed gap in academic performance between, usually, White and Asian American students on one hand, and African American and Latino students on the other (Noguera, & Wing, 2006), is an issue that has received increasing attention in recent years (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Orr, 2003; Rothstein, 2004; Thernstrom & Themstrom, 2003; Thompson, 2007). This has been particularly true as attention in educational circles has turned to accountability measures, including standardized test performance, in the age of NCLB (Gooden, 2005).

Conversations about disparities in achievement between Black and White students, however, are hardly new. Publication of the Coleman Report in 1966 jumpstarted the opportunity to discuss gaps in performance between Black and White students, which was often from cultural deficit perspectives (Coleman et al., 1966; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 2006). For years these concerns were largely encapsulated by the term "test score gap," and were the subject of the seminal book, The Black-White Test Score Gap (1998), edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips. This issue found audiences in many other publications as well (see, Hedges & Nowell, 1999; Trent, 1997). Interestingly, the term "achievement gap" does not appear in the index to Jencks and Phillips landmark collection of essays, which covers such possible contributions to the gap as "stereotype threat" (Steele & Aronson, 1998) and the burdens of "acting White" (Cook & Ludwig, 1998) to racial bias (Jencks, 1998) and family background (Phillips, Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov, & Crane, 1998).

The obvious question, then, is where did the term "achievement gap" originate? The American Heritage Dictionary (1993) defines achievement as "something accomplished successfully, especially by means of exertion, skill, or perseverance (p. 1 1)." The definition offered by an online source was similar, suggesting achievement was "something accomplished, especially] by superior ability, special effort, great courage, etc.; a great or heroic deed" (www.dictionary.com). Applying these definitions to the term "achievement gap," the obvious insinuation is White students are superior to and more special than Black students, indeed, that they achieve at a higher level by virtue of heroic effort. This much broader and more sweeping conception of disparities in academic performance on standardized tests is a far cry from the simple "test score gap" offered by Jencks and Phillips ten years ago. …

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