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Closing the achievement gaps that separate the academic performance of various subgroups of students is a central goal of current education reform efforts nationwide. Hard-earned progress has been made at the elementary school level, but high school students are not progressing nearly as well. Indeed, it is at this level that performance gains in general have been most elusive and chronic student achievement disparities among significant subgroups seem most intransigent. Yet success is not beyond reach.
This guide profiles eight charter secondary schools that are making headway in meeting the achievement challenge. They are introduced here so their practices can inspire and inform other school communities striving to ensure that all of their students, regardless of their race, ZIP code, learning differences, or home language, are successful learners capable of meeting high academic standards.
In the nationwide drive to raise student achievement and eliminate performance gaps, state accountability systems and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) provide public access to data on how students are doing. This information pinpoints any achievement gaps that exist and, in doing so, propels and helps guide action to close them. The data also shed light on hard-won advances. For example, 2005 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show significant performance gains in the early grades. Fourth-graders in all subgroups demonstrated improved achievement on the reading exam. Equally important, the achievement gaps between African-American and white students and between Hispanic and white students narrowed to the smallest size in history on the reading assessment.1 Gaps also narrowed in mathematics, and the average scores for white, African-American, and Hispanic fourth-graders were higher than in any previous assessment year. Students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—an indicator of family poverty—had higher average scores in math in 2005 than in 1996. Those fourth-graders with disabilities who were assessed also had a higher average score, and a higher percentage of them performed at or above "basic" compared to previous assessment years.2 Such gains do not come about by accident: While there is more to do, these improvements suggest that by paying attention to the data and implementing research-based practices, schools can make a powerful difference in closing achievement gaps.3
Unfortunately, improving high schools has proved more challenging. Achievement on NAEP for 17-year-olds has not increased.4 In international comparisons, our high schools are effectively losing ground rather than gaining it.5 NAEP data show that higher percentages of 12th-grade African-American and Hispanic students score "below basic" in reading and math, compared to their white and Asian American peers: In 2000, 70 percent of African-American students scored below basic in math compared to 58 percent of Hispanic students, 29 percent of white students, and 26 percent of Asian American students. In reading, 48 percent of African-American students scored below basic compared to 41 percent of Hispanic students, 28 percent of Asian American students, and 22 percent of white students.6 Meanwhile, high school graduation rates continue to be lower for minority students than for white students. In the class of 2002, about 78 percent of white students graduated from high school with a regular diploma, compared to 56 percent of African-American students and 52 percent of Hispanic students.7
Not surprisingly, high school reform has become a major goal for educators, policymakers, and foundations alike. At the federal level, the American Competitiveness Initiative specifically aims to increase academic rigor and improve math and science education, with the goal of ensuring that all U.S. students graduate equipped to compete and thrive in the new global economy. The National Governors Association (NGA), too, has identified high school reform as essential to states' interests. In its 2003 report, Ready for Tomorrow: Helping All Students Achieve Secondary and Postsecondary Success, the NGA asserts, "States have a powerful incentive to plug the leaks in the education pipeline."8 The report encourages governors and other state officials to create and support an integrated K–16 data system and to align more effectively the K–12 and higher education expectations and incentives. Among the significant nonprofit organizations that have focused on secondary school reform, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded major initiatives to restructure high schools and make curricula both more rigorous and more relevant.