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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. Such gaps have been used to illustrate social injustice and discrimination against groups, and to justify actions and beliefs based on eradicating these gaps as a matter of public policy. Others disagree as to structural causes of such gaps rooted in class, history, culture, or biology, as to whether color-blind policies that directly target economics and education, or policies based on identity groups such as affirmative action, multiculturalism and progressive education are more effective in achieving equality of outcomes.


Cause of the Achievement Gap

There is no clear cause of the achievement gap within schools, but there could be many cultural, structural, and genetic 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 better resourced peers.[1] Other researchers suggest that academic achievement is more closely tied to race and socioeconomic status.[2] 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.

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.[3]

Studies show that when students have assistance from a parent with homework, they do much better in school.[4] 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, some Hispanic students have difficulty getting help with their homework because there is not an English speaker at home to offer assistance.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7][8] 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.[2]

Structural 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] Studies on tracking groups within schools have also proven to be detrimental for minority students.[12] 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.[13] 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.[2] In fact, many sociologists argue that tracking in schools does not provide any lasting benefits to any group of students.[14]

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

William T. Dickens and James R. Flynn write that blacks have gained 5 or 6 IQ points on non-Hispanic whites between 1972 and 2002. This graph shows the gains for various tests.[15]
Min-Hsiung Huang and Robert M. Hauser found that, controlling for social background, the Black-White test score gap narrowed significantly over the period from 1974 to 1998. For Whites, however, improvement in social background across time does not raise test scores correspondingly. [16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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 School[citation needed] 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). [1] 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. [2]

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 [3] (2002) and Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation [4] (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 overt racial prejudices tend to avoid sending their children to schools with large percentages of minority students.

Standards based education reform

One set of proposals for overcoming the differential performance between groups with different income and education characteristics is based on 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, reform 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 and 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 tests 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

NAEP-longterm-Black-math-ss09-09.gif NAEP-longterm-Black-math-ss09-13.gif NAEP-longterm-Black-math-ss09-17.gif

White-Hispanic gap

NAEP-longterm-Hispanic-math-ss10-09.gif NAEP-longterm-Hispanic-math-ss10-13.gif NAEP-longterm-Hispanic-math-ss10-17.gif


Results of the reading achievement test:

White-Black gap

NAEP-longterm-Black-reading-ss07-09.gif NAEP-longterm-Black-reading-ss07-13.gif NAEP-longterm-Black-reading-ss07-17.gif

White-Hispanic gap

NAEP-longterm-Hispanic-reading-ss08-09.gif NAEP-longterm-Hispanic-reading-ss08-13.gif NAEP-longterm-Hispanic-reading-ss08-17.gif

Long-term trends

NAEP reading long-term trends for ages 9, 13, and 17

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

Gender Gap

Data show that males and females in the United States demonstrate a gap in achievement, which can be seen at all ages. The achievement gap widens as age increases for student through post-secondary education.

Research shows that one in three boys will fail to receive a high school diploma in four years. One in four girls will drop out of high school. For the 2003-2004 school year, it is estimated that 26 percent of all female students dropped out and 34 percent of all male students did. These dropout rates varied with race/ethnicity and location around the country. For the 2003-2004 school year, the 26 percent of all female student dropouts can be broken down by race: 22 percent of whites, 40 percent of blacks, 37 percent of Hispanics, 18 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander and 50 percent of American Indian females did not finish high school in the standard four year period. The percentage of males can be broken down also: 28 percent of whites, 54 percent of blacks, 48 percent of Hispanics, 24 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders and 56 percent of American Indian male students dropped out of high school. In 2006, 77 percent of all male high school dropouts were employed, compared to 53 percent of female dropouts. The median earnings of males dropouts were $24,698 and the median earnings of female dropouts were $15,520.[19]

In 2005, the average grade point average (GPA) of a high school male was 2.86, while that of a female student was 3.09. Both of these GPAs had risen since 1990, and in all years of the High School Transcript Study, females had higher GPAs than males. The gap between males and females has widened since 1990. Female graduates have higher GPAs than males in every core subject (Mathematics, Science, English, and Social Studies).[20]

A University of Michigan study found that 62 percent of female high school graduates plan on obtaining a degree from a four-year university, compared to only 51 percent of males. There is evidence that more girls are taking AP exams, which determine whether high school students have mastered college curriculum in subjects. In 2002, for example, 54 percent of AP test-takers were female and only 46 percent were male. However, more males took tests in the subjects of calculus, computer science, and other sciences. Girls are also more likely to take the SAT, ACT, or other college entrance exam, but boys are likely to score higher.[21]

Despite the achievement gaps, research does not show that either gender is more intelligent than the other. There are, however, differences in performance in different subjects. Males typically score higher on math and science based tests, while females generally score higher on tests of verbal abilities.[21] International studies suggest that this difference in ability is not solely attributed to innate differences in males and females. The score gap of these tests generally showed males performing high in math and sciences, yet the gap was significantly different throughout the countries. This implies that there are numerous factors influencing educational ability, including, but not limited to, economic, cultural, social, and differences in educational systems and techniques. Research has also shown that individuals who take more high school math and science courses earn higher wages later in life.[22] Fewer boys than girls now study chemistry, geometry and advanced algebra, and about the same number study calculus and trigonometry, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics of the United States Department of Education.

Recent data suggests that fifty-five 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.[23] 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.[21] However, a higher proportion of men (29.4 percent) hold bachelor’s degrees than women (26.1 percent). In 2007, the United States Census Bureau estimated that 18,423,000 males ages eighteen and over held a bachelor’s degree, while 20,501,000 females ages eighteen and over held one. Less males held a master’s degree, as well: 6,472,000 males had received one and 7,283,000 females had. However, more men held professional and doctoral degrees than women. 2,033,000 males held professional degrees and 1,079,000 females did and 1,678,000 males had received a doctoral degree, while 817,000 females had.[24]

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.[22] Males and females also have vastly different labor market histories based on type of job and time spent in each job.

A discrimination-based argument for the difference in types of jobs held by men and women is known as the occupational-crowding hypothesis. This argues that women are intentionally segregated into specific occupations. It does not necessarily state that this discrimination comes from male employers. Instead, it suggests that the differences in job types may be a result of the social climate in which young women are taught that certain jobs are "not for girls" and therefore are pushed into "more appropriate" jobs for women. These "appropriate" jobs for women would include those that are largely dominated by females i.e. teaching, maids, bank tellers, receptionists, and child care workers. Occupations that are male dominated include carpenters, truck drivers, architects, lawyers, police, and physicians. Because females are “crowded” into a small number of jobs, the wage is driven down and a gender wage gap is thus created.[25]

A different explanation for the difference in job types suggests that women rationally choose certain jobs and avoid others. This human capital model provides a "supply-side" explanation. Some jobs, and in particular many female-dominated jobs, do not require a frequent update of skills, whereas other occupations do. Women who choose to spend time in the household sector would choose jobs with less skill updating requirements in order to maximize their lifetime earnings. These jobs imply that should a person return to the workforce after spending time in the household sector, his or her wages would not be significantly depreciated due to lost time in the labor market.[26]

At present, the average female wage is 77 cents to each dollar that a male earns. This wage gap may be due to discrimination, differences in innate ability and skills, varying preferences, experience in the labor market, or another explanation.

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 decade[citation needed] 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 do not receive an education beyond elementary school.

See also


  1. ^ Social Class Differences in Family-School Relationships: The Impact of Cultural Capital Annette Lareau, 1987
  2. ^ a b c Tracking: From Theory to Practice Maureen Hallinan 1994
  3. ^ America's Next Achievement Test: Closing the Black-White Test Score Gap Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips 1998
  4. ^ Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation Among Latino Adolescents Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco 1995
  5. ^ Immigration, Family Life, and Achievement Motivation Among Latino Adolescents Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco 1995
  6. ^ Black Students' School Success: Coping with the "Burden of 'Acting White'" Signithia Fordham and John U. Ogbu 1986
  7. ^ Black Students' School Success: Coping with the "Burden of 'Acting White'" Signithia Fordham and John U. Ogbu 1986
  8. ^ America's Next Achievement Test: Closing the Black-White Test Score Gap Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips 1998
  9. ^ Education and the Inequalities of Place Vincent J.Roscigno, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, and Martha Crowley 2006
  10. ^ Why Do Some Schools Group By Ability? Peter G. VanderHart 2006
  11. ^ Detracking: The Social Construction of Ability, Cultural Politics, and Resistance to Reform Jeannie Oakes, Amy Stuart Wells, Makeba Jones, and Amanda Datnow 1997
  12. ^ Urban Teachers' Beliefs on Teaching, Learning, and Students: A Pilot Study in the United States of America Kim Hyunsook Song 2006
  13. ^ Social Class in Public Schools Jennifer L. Hochschild 2003
  14. ^ Is Ability Grouping Equitable? Adam Gamoran 1992
  15. ^ Black Americans reduce the racial IQ gap: Evidence from standardization samples William T. Dickens and James R. Flynn. Oct. 2006
  16. ^ Convergent Trends in Black-White Test-Score Differentials in the U.S.: A Correction of Richard Lynn Min-Hsiung Huang and Robert M. Hauser 2000
  17. ^ College Board, Thomas Sowell
  18. ^ School Quality and the Black-White Achievement Gap Eric A. Hanushek and Steven G. Rivkin 2006
  19. ^ When Girls Don’t Graduate We All Fail National Women’s Law Center 2007
  20. ^ The Nation’s Report Card 2005
  21. ^ a b c The Evidence Suggests Otherwise: The Truth About Boys and Girls Sara Mead 2006
  22. ^ a b The Gender Test Score Gap across OECD Countries Kelly Bedard and Insook Cho 2007
  23. ^ Digest of Education Statistics 2007
  24. ^ U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement 2007
  25. ^ Labor Economics George Borjas 2008
  26. ^ Labor Economics George Borjas 2008

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