The gap between test scores of whites or well-off students and low-income and ethnic minority groups won't narrow until school bosses focus on what is known about how kids learn, an achievement gap expert told teachers gathered at the Utah Education Association's convention Thursday.

Basic matters, such as what's "normal" — considered a student's experience, not potential for learning — and race and culture, are not universally defined. This impedes the work to close the gap, which persists as all children begin to raise academic achievement under initiatives including No Child Left Behind.

"The lack of clarity ... contributes to the education community being all over the place in addressing this issue," said Belinda Williams, psychologist and author of "Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices." She was the keynote speaker in the two-day convention's opening session.

The convention is titled "Meeting the Needs of All Learners — Closing the Achievement Gaps." It comes as some state language arts and math test scores show more than 20-point spreads in the achievement between whites and some ethnic student groups.

While the State Office of Education says all groups' scores are up this year, that does little to close long-standing gaps, documented nationally for years and remaining despite billions of dollars spent to narrow them, Williams sad.

Williams noted schools are not required to consider students' culture in helping them learn, even though it's central to children's experience. That's a big deal, she says, considering people learn by searching for familiar patterns and plugging new ideas into the things they already know.

"The issue of culture is left to chance," she said. "That is a huge issue."

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She also says including special education students in accountability blurs the achievement gap issue, as accountability is about groups, and special education is inherently individualized.

Williams calls for educators to stay up on the latest learning research and focus school improvement efforts accordingly.


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com