Achievement gap in the United States

Achievement gap in the United States

An achievement gap refers to the observed disparity on a number of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity, ability, and socioeconomic status. The achievement gap can be observed on a variety of measures, including standardized test scores, grade point average, dropout rates, and college-enrollment and -completion rates. While most of the data presented in this article comes from the United States, similar or different gaps exist for these, and other groups in other nations.

Importance of Narrowing the Achievement Gap

Students who fail in the education system cannot be expected to become productive members of their communities. Without a quality education and marketable skills, minority students are more likely to become economic and social burdens as adults. If there is no change in the education system and the motivations of individuals, this process will continue to repeat itself across generations of minorities through the process of class reproduction.

Cause of the Achievement Gap

There is no clear cause of the achievement gap within schools, but there are many cultural, genetic and structural factors that have had an impact on this discrepancy. Annette Lareau suggested that students who lack middle-class cultural capital and have limited parental involvement are likely to have lower academic achievement than their resourceful peers. ["Social Class Differences in Family-School Relationships: The Impact of Cultural Capital" Annette Lareau, 1987] Other researchers suggest that academic achievement is more closely tied to race and socioeconomic status. ["Tracking: From Theory to Practice" Maureen Hallinan 1994] Regardless of which factors have the greatest impact on the gap, it is clear that minority students are more likely to find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in school in comparison to white students. Still others have argued that the achievement gap may be to a significant extent explained by genetic/hereditary causes (see Race and intelligence).

Cultural and Environmental Factors

The culture and environment in which children are raised may play a role in the achievement gap. There is a fair amount of support for the idea that minorities begin their educational careers at a disadvantage due to cultural differences. Jencks and Phillips argue that black parents may not encourage early education in toddlers because they do not see the personal benefits of having exceptional academic skills. As a result of cultural differences, black students tend to begin school with smaller vocabularies than their white classmates. ["America's Next Achievement Test: Closing the Black-White Test Score Gap" Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips 1998]

Studies show that when students have assistance from a parent with homework, they do much better in school. ["Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation Among Latino Adolescents" Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco 1995] This is a problem for many minority students due to the large number of single-parent households and the increase in non-English speaking parents. Students from single-parent homes often find it difficult to find time to receive help from their parent. Similarly, many Hispanic students have difficulty getting help with their homework because there is not an English speaker at home to offer assistance. ["Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation Among Latino Adolescents" Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco 1995]

Some researchers believe that minorities, especially African American students, stop trying in school because they do not want to be accused of “acting white” by their peers. ["Black Students' School Success: Coping with the "Burden of 'Acting White'" Signithia Fordham and John U. Ogbu 1986] It has also been suggested that some minority students simply stop trying because they do not believe they will ever see the true benefits of their hard work. As some researchers point out, minority students often feel little motivation to do well in school because they are aware that it will most likely not pay off in the form of a better jobs or social mobility. ["Black Students' School Success: Coping with the "Burden of 'Acting White'" Signithia Fordham and John U. Ogbu 1986] ["America's Next Achievement Test: Closing the Black-White Test Score Gap" Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips 1998] This is because minorities are limited by their race and socioeconomic status through lower wages and fewer job opportunities than whites with similar educational experiences. By not trying to do well in school, minorities are engaging in a conscious rejection of the achievement ideology. The achievement ideology is the idea that working hard and studying long hours will pay-off for students in the form of higher wages or upward social mobility.

Additionally, minority students also have problems doing well in school because they are unfamiliar with the dominant cultural capital. Studies have shown that schools often inadvertently test students on their knowledge and familiarity with white, middle-class cultural capital instead of how well students have learned the subject matter. ["Tracking: From Theory to Practice" Maureen Hallinan 1994]

tructural and Institutional Factors

In general, minority students tend to come from low-income households, meaning minority students are more likely to attend poorly funded schools based on the districting patterns within the school system. Schools in lower-income districts tend to employ less-qualified teachers and have fewer educational resources. ["Education and the Inequalities of Place" Vincent J.Roscigno, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, and Martha Crowley 2006]

Schools also tend to place students in tracking (education) groups as a means of tailoring lesson plans for different types of learners. However, as a result of schools placing emphasis on socioeconomic status and cultural capital, minority students are vastly over-represented in lower educational tracks. ["Why Do Some Schools Group By Ability?" Peter G. VanderHart 2006] Similarly, Hispanic and African American students are often wrongly placed into lower tracks based on teachers’ and administrators’ expectations for minority students. Such expectations of a race within school systems is a form of institutional racism. Some researchers compare the tracking system to a modern form of racial segregation within the schools. ["Detracking: The Social Construction of Ability, Cultural Politics, and Resistance to Reform" Jeannie Oakes, Amy Stuart Wells, Makeba Jones, and Amanda Datnow 1997] Studies on tracking groups within schools have also proven to be detrimental for minority students. ["Urban Teachers' Beliefs on Teaching, Learning, and Students: A Pilot Study in the United States of America" Kim Hyunsook Song 2006] Once students are in these lower tracks, they tend to have less-qualified teachers, a less challenging curriculum, and few opportunities to advance into higher tracks. ["Social Class in Public Schools" Jennifer L. Hochschild 2003] There is also some research that suggests students in lower tracks suffer from social psychological consequences of being labeled as a slower learner, which often leads children to stop trying in school. ["Tracking: From Theory to Practice" Maureen Hallinan 1994] In fact, many sociologists argue that tracking in schools does not provide any lasting benefits to any group of students. ["Is Ability Grouping Equitable?" Adam Gamoran 1992]

Narrowing the Achievement Gap

Explanations for the phenomenon -- and levels of concern over its existence -- vary widely, and are the source of much controversy, especially since efforts to "close the achievement gap" have become some of the more politically prominent education reform issues.

Many schools have started using after-school tutoring sessions and remedial programs to help narrow the achievement gap associated with minority students. The problem with such programs is that in order to narrow the gap, minority students must learn at a rapid speed in order to “catch-up” with their white peers. Other schools have started de-tracking their students or tracking by ability groups in order to provide the same quality education for all students, regardless of race. By de-tracking schools, all students are more likely to have equally qualified teachers, expectations, curriculum, and resources.

Low income / minority

It most often describes the issue of low-income/minority education in the United States; that is, that Blacks and Latinos and students from poor families perform worse in school than their well-off White and Asian peers. SAT scores broken down by family income show when students have similar family incomes, Black and Latino students still score lower than Whites, and Whites score lower than Asians with similar incomes. [College Board, Thomas Sowell]

Eric A. Hanushek and Steven G. Rivkin wrote in their 2006 book that unequal distributions of inexperienced teachers and of racial concentrations in schools can explain all of the increased achievement gap between grades 3 and 8. ["School Quality and the Black-White Achievement Gap" Eric A. Hanushek and Steven G. Rivkin 2006]

High performing minority learning

Exceptions to the achievement gap exist. Schools that are majority black, even poor, can perform well above national norms, with Davidson Magnet SchoolFact|date=November 2007 in Augusta, Georgia being a prominent example. Another school with remarkable gains for students of color is Amistad Academy in New Haven,Connecticut. All of the aforementioned schools generally offer more rigorous, traditional modes of instruction, including Direct Instruction. Direction Instruction was found to be the single most effective pedagogical method for raising the skill levels of inner-city students (Project Follow Through). [] High performing Black schools are not unique to the twentieth century. In Washington, DC in the late 19th century, a predominantly low income Black school performed higher than three White schools in yearly testing. This trend continued until the mid 20th century, and during that time the M Street School exceeded national norms on standardized tests. []

Social researchers Carl L. Bankston III and Stephen J. Caldas have argued that the achievement gap, rather than overt racism, is the main source of continuing school segregation in the United States. In their books, "A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana" [] (2002) and "Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation" [] (2005), they maintain that students benefit academically from going to school with relatively high-achieving schoolmates and are academically disadvantaged when they have relatively low-achieving schoolmates. Therefore, a racial gap in achievement means that even parents without racial prejudices tend to avoid sending their children to schools with large percentages of minority students.

tandards based education reform

Largely refuting the findings of differential performance between groups with different income and education characteristics are the beliefs of the standards based education reform movement adopted by most education agencies in the United States by the 21st century. By studying other nations with a national education policy, setting clear, attainable world class standards of performance, using standards based assessment with the incentive of a high school graduation examination, and other student-centered reforms such as whole language, block scheduling, multiculturalism, desegregation, affirmative action, standards-based mathematics and inquiry-based science, it is believed that all students of all races and incomes will succeed. None of these aforementioned reforms have raised student achievement. The No Child Left Behind federal legislation indeed requires as a final goal that all students of all groups will perform at grade level in all tests, and show continual improvement from year to year, or face sanctions, though some have noted that schools with the highest number of poor and minorities generally face the greatest challenges to meet these goals. Advocates of a rigorous, traditional education point out that the institutions which produce outstanding minority achievement are not based on student-based, constructivist reforms, or curricula focused on racial equity as an explicit goal.

In contrast to norm-referenced tests such as IQ tests and the SAT and ACT which are widely condemned, or in the case of IQ tests made illegal for limiting opportunities for minorities, standards based assessment are lauded for being set based on clearly defined criterion-referenced tests which in theory can be passed by all students, and be constructed free from cultural bias.

However, by 2006, the success of this approach was in question in states such as Washington when fully half of all students promise set [this sentence is incoherent] in 1993 education reform legislation that most or all students would pass the standards when they were made a mandatory graduation requirement. Still, officials such as Superintendent Terry Bergeson persist in their belief that minority students are just as capable as higher scoring groups and only need additional help. Other states such as Massachusetts MCAS demonstrated high graduation rates for all races, however groups such as Fairtest point out many minority students simply dropped out, while underperforming minorities would still lag whites and Asians.

While states like Washington cited a narrowing of some gaps, there was no evidence that standards based reforms had actually eliminated any gaps, or changed their rank ordering in the United States, Australia, or anywhere in the world. Charles Murray, one of the authors of "The Bell Curve", questioned whether reductions in point gaps represented any change in relative improvement at all. Though in theory all groups can and will pass such tests at high rates, in practice such tests are even more difficult to answer [?] open-response items which require significant reading and writing and problem solving as well as mathematical skills. While minorities might score between the 25th or 50th percentile on a rank order test, failure rates for minorities remained at 2 to 4 times the rate for the highest scoring groups throughout most testing years on test such as the WASL and only 1 in 4 minority sophomores had passed the standard needed to get their diploma in 2006.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (United States)


White-Black gap

White-Hispanic gap


Results of the reading achievement test:

White-Black gap

White-Hispanic gap

Long-term trends

::Reading- ages 9 (light gray), 13 (dark gray), and 17 (black).

Other gaps

Other gaps remain. Illiteracy was once characteristic of many older African Americans, though now chiefly it is immigrant groups in the United States which have high percentages of persons who cannot read or write English. The high school graduation rate for blacks, compared to when the same rate was achieved for whites, closed by 10 years each decadeFact|date=February 2008 until the 1980 and 1990 census, when they were essentially equal at a national level. Similarly, the rate of college attendance for African Americans lags that of whites, but is measured at a level similar to whites in the 1970s. Although Asian Americans are the most educated group in the United States, this is not true of Asians worldwide. There are large populations in India and China where citizens, especially women, do not receive an education beyond elementary school.

ee also

*Achievement ideology
*Standards based education reform
*Race and intelligence
*Closing Achievement Gaps in the State of Ohio
*African American education
*Thomas Sowell
*Digital gap
*Generation gap
*Income gap
*Marriage gap
*Opportunity gap


External links

* [ "Education Week": Achievement Gap]
* [ The School Improvement KnowledgeBase]

* [ John Ogbu]
* [ The achievement gap and desegregation]
* [ What Schools Can Do to Reduce the Achievement Gap]
* [ Racial Disparities and Discrimination in Education]

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