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||It has been suggested that Education outcomes in the United States by race and other classifications be merged into this article or section. (Discuss) Proposed since May 2009.|
Achievement gap refers to the observed and persistent disparity on a number of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity, 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 this article focuses on the achievement gap in the United States, various gaps exist between groups in other nations as well. Research into the causes of gaps in student achievement between low-income minority students and middle-income white students have been ongoing since the publication of the report, "Equality of Educational Opportunity" (more widely known as the Coleman Report), commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education in 1966. That research suggests that both in-school factors and home/community factors impact the academic achievement of students and contribute to the gap.
The achievement gap, as noted in the trend data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has become a focal point of education reform efforts. Groups like The Education Trust, Democrats for Education Reform and The Education Equality Project have made it their mission to close the achievement gap. Efforts to combat the gap have been numerous but fragmented, and have ranged from affirmative action and multicultural education to finance equalization, improving teacher quality, and school testing and accountability programs to create equal educational opportunities.
Researchers have not reached consensus about the a priori causes of the academic achievement gap; instead, there exists a wide range of studies that cite an array of factors, both cultural and structural, that influence student performance in school. 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 better resourced peers. Other researchers suggest that academic achievement is more closely tied to race and socioeconomic status and have tried to pinpoint why. For example, being raised in a low-income family often means having fewer educational resources in addition to poor nutrition and limited access to health care, all of which could contribute to lower academic performance. Researchers concerned with the achievement gap between genders cite biological differences, such as brain structure and development, as a possible reason why one gender outperforms the other in certain subjects. For example, a Virginia Tech Study conducted in 2000 examined the brains of 508 children and found that different areas of the brain develop in a different sequence in girls compared to boys. The differing maturation speed of the brain between boys and girls affects how each gender processes information and could have implications for how they perform in school. Hernstein and Murray claimed in The Bell Curve, creating much controversy, that genetic variation in average levels of intelligence (IQ) are at the root of racial disparities in achievement. Other researchers have argued that there is no significant difference in inherent cognitive ability between different races that could help to explain the achievement gap, and that environment is at the root of the issue.
Research shows that the achievement gap, which often first manifests itself through standardized tests in elementary school, actually begins well before students reach kindergarten as a “school readiness” gap. One study claims that about half the test score gap between black and white high school students is already evident when children start school. A variety of different tests at kindergarten entry have provided evidence of such a gap, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey of Kindergarten children (ECLS-K). While results differ depending on the instrument, estimates of the black-white gap range from slightly less than half a standard deviation to slightly more than 1 standard deviation. This early disparity in performance is critical, as research shows that once students are behind, they do not catch up. Children who score poorly on tests of cognitive skills before starting kindergarten are highly likely to be low performers throughout their school careers. The evidence of the early appearance of the gap has led to efforts focused on early childhood interventions (see “Narrowing the achievement gap” below).
The culture and environment in which children are raised may play a role in the achievement gap. Jencks and Phillips argue that African American 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, African American students tend to begin school with smaller vocabularies than their white classmates. However, poverty often acts as a confounding factor and differences that are assumed to arise from racial/cultural factors may be socioeconomically driven. Many children who are poor, regardless of race, come from homes that lack stability, continuity of care, adequate nutrition, and medical care creating a level of environmental stress that can affect the young child’s development. As a result, these children enter school with decreased word knowledge that can affect their language skills, influence their experience with books, and create different perceptions and expectations in the classroom context.
Studies show that when students have parental assistance with homework, they perform better in school. This is a problem for many minority students due to the large number of single-parent households (67% of African-American children are in a single-parent household) 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, some Hispanic students have difficulty getting help with their homework because there is not an English speaker at home to offer assistance.
Another explanation that has been suggested for racial and ethnic differences in standardized test performance is that some minority children may not be motivated to do their best on these assessments. The first explanation is that standardized IQ tests and testing procedures are culturally biased toward European-American middle class knowledge and experiences. Claude M. Steele suggested that minority children and adolescents may also experience stereotype threat—the fear that they will be judged to have traits associated with negative appraisals and/or stereotypes of their race or ethnic group which produces test anxiety and keeps them from doing as well as they could on tests. According to Steele, minority test takers experience anxiety, believing that if they do poorly on their test they will confirm the stereotypes about inferior intellectual performance of their minority group. As a result, a self-fulfilling prophecy begins, and the child performs at a level beneath his or her inherent abilities. Some researchers also hypothesize that in some cases, minorities, especially African American students, may stop trying in school because they do not want to be accused of “acting white” by their peers. 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 may feel little motivation to do well in school because they do not believe it will pay off in the form of a better job or upward social mobility. By not trying to do well in school, such students engage in a rejection of the achievement ideology – that 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.
Different schools have different effects on similar students. Children of color tend to be concentrated in low-achieving, highly segregated schools. In general, minority students are more likely 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. Research shows that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning. Good teachers can actually close or eliminate the gaps in achievement on the standardized tests that separate white and minority students.
Schools also tend to place students in tracking 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. 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 are a form of institutional racism. Some researchers compare the tracking system to a modern form of racial segregation within the schools. Studies on tracking groups within schools have also proven to be detrimental for minority students. 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. 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. In fact, many sociologists argue that tracking in schools does not provide any lasting benefits to any group of students.
Additionally, poor and minority students have disproportionately less access to high-quality early childhood education, which has been shown to have a strong impact on early learning and development. One study found that although black children are more likely to attend preschool than white children, they may experience lower-quality care. The same study also found that Hispanic children in the U.S. are much less likely to attend preschool than white children. Another study conducted in Illinois in 2010 found that only one in three Latino parents could find a preschool slot for his or her child, compared to almost two thirds of other families. Finally, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), families with modest incomes (less than $60,000) have the least access to preschool education. Research suggests that dramatic increases in both enrollment and quality of prekindergarten programs would help to alleviate the school readiness gap and ensure that low-income and minority children begin school on even footing with their peers.
In addition to the moral and social justice arguments for closing the achievement gap, there are strong economic arguments for doing so. A 2009 report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. asserts that the persistence of the achievement gap in the U.S. has the economic effect of a “permanent national recession." The report claims that if the achievement gap between black and Latino performance and white student performance had been narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been $310 billion to $525 billion higher (2–4 percent). If the gap between low-income students and their peers had been narrowed, GDP in the same year would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher (3–5 percent). In addition to the potential increase in GDP, the report projects that closing the achievement gap would lead to cost savings in areas outside of education, such as incarceration and healthcare. The link between low school performance and crime, low earnings and poor health has been echoed in academic research.
Explanations for the achievement gap—and levels of concern over its existence—vary widely, and are the source of much controversy, especially since efforts to "close the gap" have become some of the more politically prominent education reform issues.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) focuses on standards, aligned tests and school accountability to ensure that all students have the same educational opportunities. As written, the legislation requires that all students in all groups eventually perform at grade level in all tests, and that schools show continual improvement toward this goal (otherwise known as "Adequate Yearly Progress," or AYP) or face sanctions. Some have noted that schools with the highest proportion of poor and minority students generally face the greatest challenges to meeting these goals, and are therefore punished unfairly by the law.
More recently, the Obama Administration has instituted the Race to the Top (RTTT) program which provides financial incentives to states to produce measurable student gains. RTTT’s primary goals are to improve student achievement, close achievement gaps, and improve high school graduation rates. The initiative is similar to the No Child Left Behind Act in that it has many of the same goals, though there is a bigger emphasis on closing the achievement gap between high and low performing schools The major difference between the two educational reform programs is that RTTT is a competitive grant program that provides incentives for schools to change, while the NCLB Act mandated various changes in state and local education systems.
A number of interventions have been implemented at the school, district and state level to address the achievement gap. These have included investment in pre-kindergarten programs, class size reduction, small schools, curricular reform, alignment of pre-kindergarten through college standards and expectations, and improved teacher education programs. Many schools have started using after-school tutoring sessions and remedial programs. Such efforts aim to accelerate the learning of minority students to greater than a year's growth in one year's time so that over time they catch up to their peers. Other schools have started de-tracking their students in order to provide the same quality education for all students, regardless of race.
Another focus of reform efforts to address the achievement gap has been on teacher development, as research shows teachers to be the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement. This reform effort has been both top-down, in the form of higher state standards for teacher education and preparation, as well as bottom-up, through programs like Teach for America and AmeriCorps that aim to address educational inequity by recruiting and training teachers specifically to work in high-needs schools.
One policy strategy aimed at preventing, or at least mitigating, the achievement gap at its earliest stages is investment in early childhood education. Economic research shows that investment at this stage is both more effective and cost effective than interventions later in a child’s life. Head Start and various state-funded pre-kindergarten programs target students from low-income families in an attempt to equal the playing field for these children before school begins. In addition to increased access, there has also an increased national focus on raising quality standards for Head Start and state-funded pre-K programs, and in improving training and professional development for early care providers. The evidence in favor of investing in early childhood education as a means of closing the achievement gap is strong: various studies, including the Carolina Abecedarian study, Child-Parent Center study, and HighScope Perry Preschool study, have shown that pre-K programs can have a positive and long-lasting impact on academic achievement of low-income and minority students.
Sociologists Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips have argued that narrowing the black-white test score gap "would do more to move [the United States] toward racial equality than any politically plausible alternative". As already discussed, there is also strong evidence that narrowing the gap would have a significant positive economic and social impact.
Narrowing The Achievement Gap Through Technology
Computer and technology use have been linked to increased student achievement. “When teachers and administrators make a sustained commitment to the use of computers in the classroom, student achievement increases (Mann & Shafer, 1997). Using technology as a tool for narrowing the achievement gap begins with a purpose, communication, listening, and collaboration. These skills can be achieved through the use of weblogs, social networking sites, feeds, and a myriad of other multimedia. In classrooms, students can communicate internally, or they can work side by side with others who are located thousands of miles away. Through the use of technology, presentations can be archived so that the material can be reviewed at anytime. “All teachers could record important parts of what they do in the classroom that can then be archived to the class Weblog and used by students who may have missed the class or just want a refresher on what happened.” (Richardson, p. 117) Having access to information on the web gives students an advantage to learning. “Students at all levels show more interest in their work and their ability to locate and reflect upon their work is greatly enhanced as are the opportunities for collaborative learning” (Richardson, p. 28). Weblogs are different than posts or comments; they require students to analyze and synthesize the content and communicate their understanding with the audience responses in mind.
Technology has been incorporated into the Standards. Even though the NCLB Act holds school districts accountable for student achievement, there are still many students who do not have the resources at home to fully take part in these excellent educational tools. Some teachers feel that technology is not the solution and see it as a risk. Therefore, technology is not always being used to its fullest potential by teachers and students do not gain the advantages technology offers. “Given the fact that the amount of information going online shows no sign of slowing, if they are unable to consistently collect potentially relevant information for their lives and careers and quickly discern what of that information is most useful, they will be at a disadvantage.” (Richardson, p. 73). According to the U.S. Census, by 2012, it is estimated that 70% of homes will have broadband access. While this is a large percentage, it still leaves 30% of households without internet access. The government has lent its hand in closing the Global Achievement Gap by granting funding for low-income school districts for programs such as one-on-one computing, however, the fact that many of these students do not have online capability at home is still a main issue.
Exceptions to the achievement gap exist. Schools that are majority black, even poor, can perform well above national norms, with Davidson Magnet School in Augusta, Georgia being a prominent example. Another school with remarkable gains for students of color is Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut. These schools offer more rigorous, traditional modes of instruction, including Direct Instruction. In one study, Direct 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. 
In addition, each year the Education Trust identifies and honors high-performing high-poverty and high-minority schools. All of the "Dispelling the Myth" schools, as they are called, have made significant strides in narrowing achievement gaps, attaining proficiency levels that significantly exceed the averages in their states, or improving student performance at an especially rapid pace. These schools do not offer simple answers or easy solutions, but several common strategies emerge from their practices. They provide a rich curriculum coupled with strong, focused instruction. They have high expectations for all students. They use data to track student progress and individual student needs. And they employ purposeful professional development to improve teachers’ skills.
Evidence of the achievement gap can be found using various measures, but one assessment used nationwide is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The graphs below show the achievement gap on this assessment between black and white students and between Hispanic and white students in the U.S. over time. Although the gaps have generally narrowed in recent years according to this particular measure, there are clearly still large disparities between groups.
Results of the reading achievement test:
For the past fifty years, there has been a gap in the educational achievement of males and females in the United States, but which gender has been disadvantaged has fluctuated over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, data showed girls trailing behind boys in a variety of academic performance measures, specifically in test scores in math and science. However, data in the last twenty years shows the general trend of girls outperforming boys in academic achievement in terms of class grades across all subjects and college graduation rates, but boys scoring higher on standardized tests and being better represented in the higher-paying and more prestigious STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Traditionally, girls have outperformed boys in reading and writing. Although this gap may be minimal in kindergarten, it grows as students continue their education. According the 2004 National Reading Assessment measured by the US Department of Education, the gap between boys and girls, only slightly noticeable in 4th grade, left boys 14 points behind girls during their 12th grade year. On the 2008 test, female students continued to have higher average reading scores than male students at all three ages. The gap between male and female 4th graders was 7 points in 2008. By 12th grade, there was an 11 point gap between males and females.
On the 2002 National Writing Assessment, boys scored on average 17 points lower than girls in 4th grade. The average gap increased to 21 points by 8th grade and widened to 24 points by senior year in high school. In the more recent 2007 National Assessment of Writing Skills, female students continued to score higher than male students, though margins closed slightly from previous assessments. The average score for female eighth-graders was 20 points higher than males, down 1 point from the 2002 score. For twelfth-graders, females outscored males by 18 points as opposed to 21 points in 2002.
Which gender is disadvantaged by the gap in math and science achievement largely depends on how academic achievement is being measured. Female students generally have better grades in their math classes, and this gap starts off very minimal but increases with age. However, males score higher on standardized math tests, and these score gaps also increase with age. Male students also score higher on measures of college readiness, such as the AP Calculus exams and the math section of the SAT. The differences in National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) math scores between boys and girls nearly double from the 9-year olds to the 17-year olds. This inconsistency in which gender shows more achievement could be due to the fact that class grades, especially in middle and high school, usually depend on a student’s completion of homework assignments, and studies have shown that girls report spending more time on homework than boys. The gender gap in mathematics is particularly large among the highest-achieving students; for example, there is a 2.1-1 male-female ratio among students who score an 800 on the math portion of the SAT.
At least one study has challenged the existence of the gender gap in mathematics. In 2008 Janet Hyde and others published a study showing that male and female students did equally well on No Child Left Behind standardized tests that were administered in second through eleventh grades in ten states. However, Hyde and her team did find gaps that favored males at the upper end of the achievement distribution and tried to examine gaps on more difficult test questions (previous research has shown that males outperform females on more challenging items), but the tests they examined lacked adequately challenging items. This raised questions about whether there is still a gender gap in math achievement.
There is also a large discrepancy between the number of men and women working in STEM fields. Women have been, and continue to be, underrepresented in these fields. This underrepresentation is evident in the distribution of college majors among men and women; from 1997 to 2007, women earned only 18% of engineering bachelor’s degrees.
According to recent data, 55 percent of college students are females and 45 percent are males. From 1995 until 2005, the number of males enrolled in college increased by 18 percent, while the number of female students rose by 27 percent. Males are enrolling in college in greater numbers than ever before, yet less than two-thirds of them are graduating with a bachelor’s degree. The numbers of both men and women receiving a bachelor’s degree have increased significantly, but the increasing rate of female college graduates exceeds the increasing rate for males. However, a higher proportion of men (29.4%) hold bachelor’s degrees than women (26.1%). In 2007, the United States Census Bureau estimated that 18,423,000 males ages over the age of 18 held a bachelor’s degree, while 20,501,000 females over the age 18 held one. In addition, fewer males held master’s degrees: 6,472,000 males compared to 7,283,000 females. However, more men held professional and doctoral degrees than women. 2,033,000 males held professional degrees compared to 1,079,000, and 1,678,000 males had received a doctoral degree compared to 817,000 females.
Although more women are graduating with undergraduate degrees, men are still earning disproportionately more in their lifetimes. This could be due to many factors, including different types of jobs for males and females. Females are greatly underrepresented in science and engineering fields, which are typically correlated with high lifetime earnings. Males and females also have vastly different labor market histories based on type of job and time spent in each job.
How a student interacts with and is evaluated by his or her teachers is closely correlated with that student’s future academic achievement. According to researcher Thomas Good, there are two competing views of how teachers can indirectly impact the achievement of their students. The first is that teachers are more likely to give special attention and extra assistance to students who appear to be struggling in their class. In reading and writing classes, male students are often behind female students in terms of achievement. Therefore, male students are more likely to get more teacher attention, and this extra interaction could give males an advantage in terms of future achievement. The second view is that teachers demand more and show more respect toward students who they view to be high achievers, which creates a cycle in which only students who are perceived to be intelligent receive extra help and teacher attention.
How teachers perceive students’ knowledge and abilities varies by gender and influences classroom processes and student achievement in both reading and math. Teachers usually have higher expectations for students they view as higher achievers and treat these students with more respect. A study by Tach and Farkas has also found that when students are split into reading groups based on their abilities, the students in the higher-ability reading groups are more likely to demonstrate positive learning behaviors and higher achievement. Teachers are more likely to favor girls when evaluating what types of readers students seem to be. Because studies have shown that teacher perceptions of students can determine how much individualized attention a student receives and can serve as an indicator of future academic progress, if teachers underestimate males’ reading abilities and use ability grouping in their classrooms, male students might be put at a disadvantage and have their learning in reading classes be negatively affected. The opposite trend has been found in math classes. Teachers still tend to view math as a “masculine” subject and tend to have higher expectations for and better attitude towards their male students in these classes. A study by Fennema et al. has also shown that teachers tend to name males when asked to list their “best math students.” Females are more likely than males to be negatively impacted than male students by this underestimation of their math abilities. These gender-specific evaluations from teachers are implicit; usually the teachers have no idea that they are favoring one gender over the other until they are shown concrete evidence, such as a video recording of their classroom. However, even though the discrimination is implicit, it still has negative effects on both male and female students.
There is conflicting evidence about whether teacher assessments of student performance and ability are consistent with cognitive assessments like standardized tests. Teacher assessment evidence comes from a relatively small number of classrooms when compared to standardized tests, which are administered in every public school in all fifty states.
Gender stereotyping within classrooms can also lead to differences in academic achievement and representation for female and male students. Math and science are often perceived as “masculine” subjects because they lead to success in “masculine” fields, such as medicine and engineering. English and history, on the other hand, are often perceived as “feminine” subjects because they are more closely aligned with “feminine” jobs, such as teaching or care work. These stereotypes can influence student achievement in these areas. Research on stereotype threat has shown that gender stereotypes decrease the mathematical self-esteem of many female students, and that this lack of academic confidence leads to anxiety and poorer performance on math exams. If self-esteem declines throughout a student’s schooling, the achievement gap between genders will increase.
How a child's parents view his or her skills can also contribute to the gender achievement gap in education. A study by Jacobs and Eccles has shown that adults rate female children as having better social skills than male children, and that girls are more likely to be seen as "good children" than boys. These gender-based stereotypes can perpetuate the gender achievement gap in education by influencing parents' perceptions of their children's skills, and these perceptions can influence the types of activities and subjects parents steer their children toward.
It is important to address the gender achievement gap in education because failure to cultivate the academic talents of any one group will have aggregate negative consequences. If women are underrepresented in STEM fields, and if men are underrepresented in the social sciences and humanities, both genders are missing opportunities to develop diverse skill sets that can help them in the workplace. If the gender achievement gap in education continues to exist, so does the stereotype that medicine, science, and engineering are all “masculine” fields and that women belong in fields like teaching, counseling, or social work. This stereotype can lead to the image that women who pursue careers in the STEM fields are seen as “nerdy” or “geeky,” and this can have a detrimental effect on the self-esteem of females who do choose to enter these fields.
Researchers have found that the gender achievement gap has a large impact on the future career choices of high-achieving students. Part of this is a result of the college majors that men and women choose; men are more likely to major in engineering or the hard sciences, while women are more likely to receive degrees in English, psychology, or sociology. Therefore, men are statistically more likely to enter careers that have more potential for higher long-term earnings than women. The careers that are aligned with these majors have different levels of prestige and different salaries, which can lead to a gender wage gap. U.S. Census data indicates that women who work full-time earn only 77% of what their male counterparts earn. For men and women who are ten years out of college, women earn only 69% of the salaries of their male workers. The perpetuation of the gender achievement gap will also lead to the perpetuation of this gender wage gap.
There have been several studies done of interventions aimed at reducing the gender achievement gap in science classes. Some interventions, such as instituting mentoring programs aimed at women or restructuring the course curriculum, have had limited success. The most successful interventions have been a form of psychological interventions called values affirmation. In a famous study of women's achievement in college science by Miyake et al., values affirmation was successful in reducing the differences between male and female academic achievement in college-level introductory physics classes, and it has been particularly effective at combating the psychological phenomenon known as stereotype threat. Values affirmation exercises require students to either write about their most important values or their least important values two times at the beginning of the 15-week course. After this intervention, the modal grades of women enrolled in the course increased from a C to a B. Psychological interventions such as this one show promise for increasing women's achievement in math and science courses and reducing the achievement gap that exists between the genders in these subject areas, but further research will need to be done in order to determine whether the positive effects are long-lasting.
47. Monroe, B. (2004). Crossing the digital divide: race, writing, and technology in the classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.