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There is more evidence today that the nation's public school system is shortchanging minority children. Two new studies underscore the huge gap between the test scores of whites and those of black and Hispanic students. What's not clear, though, is whether the No Child Left Behind law is living up to its name in helping these kids catch up.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Educators hear these statistics all the time, but if you're a parent or just a regular person, it's kind of shocking to be reminded how far behind many black and Hispanic school kids are in this country. Bruce Fuller with the University of California at Berkeley says despite years of education reform -

Professor BRUCE FULLER (University of California at Berkeley): Black fourth graders are two and a half below white fourth graders.

ABRAMSON: That means fourth grade black kids, on average, read about as well as white kids in second grade. It used to be worse. A UC Berkley study coming out tomorrow says earlier generations of school reform helped to narrow the gap somewhat, but in the last few years, the different in test scores has remained the same or gotten bigger. Bruce Fuller says the race to end the achievement gap may have run out of steam.

Professor FULLER: School reform is a little bit like making Jell-O. At first it's hot and colorful, and then it sort of settles into this gelatinous mass.

ABRAMSON: Another study out today comes to a similar conclusion. The Northwest Evaluation Association and Education Research Group took a different approach to the same problem. The group tracked progress in reading and math for half a million students to see whether individual kids who start off at the same place gradually do worse if they are poor, black or Hispanic. Different method, same result. That leads Ross Weiner of the Education Trust to this grim conclusion.

Mr. ROSS WEINER (Education Trust): Public schools, at least according to the data that they have here, are a significant source of disadvantage for African American and Latino students.

ABRAMSON: The Education Trust has been a backer of the federal No Child Left Behind law, but Ross Weiner says this data raises some pretty serious questions. Take this odd fact. Conventional wisdom says most kids lose ground over the summer, but this study found that minority kids actually slide less when they are away from school.

Mr. WEINER: Previously low achieving students actually tend to gain over the summer and they tend to gain ground on their higher achieving peers.

ABRAMSON: Holly Cusmidge(ph) of the Education Department concedes the No Child Left Behind law is supposed to be dramatically raising the performance of minority kids.

Ms. HOLLY CUSMIDGE (Education Department): Yes, that is the key goal of No Child Left Behind, to close the achievement gap by 2014.

ABRAMSON: Critics of the No Child Left Behind law say the persistence of this gap shows that federal policies are not working, but Cusmidge says minority scores are moving up thanks to federal requirements that all kids be tested and that their scores improve. It will take some time, she says, to eliminate the gap in scores. The first step, she says, is to bring the lowest performing kids up to a basic standard.

Ms. CUSMIDGE: We will be happy when we are teaching all kids on grade level. We are not doing that, and we have a lot of work to do to get there.

ABRAMSON: Others, however, say the gap may never go away, and that's okay. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation, another advocacy group, says education reform is working if all kids are doing better.

Mr. MIKE PETRILLI (Fordham Foundation): Because at the end of the day as a society, of course we want to make sure that Student A is a lot better than they're doing now, but none of us gains by having Student B do any worse.

ABRAMSON: The only gap that won't go away is this one between those who say all kids must have equal outcomes and those who believe that kids just need the same opportunity to succeed.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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