NEPC Review: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap (September 2010)
The Heritage Foundation report, Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: Learning from Florida’s Reforms, endorses a set of policies from Florida: vouchers funded by tax credits, charter schools, online education, performance-based teacher pay, grading of schools and districts primarily based on test scores of students, test-based grade retention, and alternative teacher certification. The report claims that Florida’s student achievement trends improved and gaps were substantially reduced for Black and Hispanic students because of this package of reforms. Based on these purported successes, it recommends adopting these reforms in other states. However, the central analysis compares average test scores of students in the nation versus Florida without considering key group differences, an oversight that leads to erroneous causal interpretations on effects of reforms using purely descriptive data. The report further ignores group differences resulting from the state’s mandatory grade retention policy for the weakest readers in grade 3. This policy-driven increase in grade retention rates spuriously inflated the average scores of grade 4 students on state and national assessments, making racial achievement gaps narrower. The report also fails to examine test score data on all subjects and grade levels, instead relying only on grade 4 reading, which showed the most positive results. Finally, although a great deal is known about the reform policies the report promotes, it neglects this research literature. These serious flaws call into question the report’s conclusions.