What is the Achievement Gap in Education?

Students in all groups do not perform the same academically. In this lesson, you will learn about the achievement gap, what it means, and who it affects. After the lesson, take a brief quiz to see what you learned.

What is the Achievement Gap?

The achievement gap describes the disparity in academic performance between students who are in different groups. For example, a group of third-grade boys and a group of third-grade girls may perform differently on the same test. Students in different groups perform differently on tests, earn different grades, take different courses, dropout at different rates, and demonstrate different college completion rates. These differences make up the achievement gap.

Which Students Experience the Achievement Gap?

The achievement gap affects students in various ethnic, racial, gender, disability, and income groups. Students in all of the following groups statistically experience significant achievement gaps:

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  • English language learners
  • Students with low socioeconomic status
  • Students with disabilities
  • Racial and ethnic minority students, especially African American students, Hispanic students, American Indian and Alaskan Native students, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
  • Girls as compared to their male counterparts in areas such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)
  • Boys as compared to their female counterparts in areas such as ELAR (English, Language Arts and Reading)

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), which required states to develop assessments of basic academic skills and to measure student success according to clearly defined learning standards, much publicity about the achievement gap has focused on the widespread performance gaps between African American and Hispanic students as opposed to non-Hispanic white students, students from low-income families as opposed to those from families at the higher end of the socioeconomic scale, and students whose native language is not English as compared to those who speak English in the home.

However, as more attention has been focused on standardized test scores for all students, achievement gaps have been discovered among other groups, such as students who live in state or foster homes, gay, lesbian, and/or transgender students, and students from migrant farming families.

What Are Some Indicators of Achievement Gaps?

Achievement gaps become especially evident through analysis of standardized test results, which provide uniform data and consistent measures for success.

For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) performed a special analysis in 2009 and 2011 showing that African American and Hispanic students scored an average of 20 points lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than did their white counterparts. Since the NAEP covers the same basic academic skills that states must measure, but is administered to students nationwide using the identical sets of questions and strict test administration procedures, the NAEP is widely accepted as a fair and accurate representation of academic performance nationwide.

NAEP Hispanic Reading Performance Gap

The achievement gap can also be predicted using some early indicators of academic readiness. Children who live in poverty, for example, come to school with smaller vocabularies and lower oral and written language skills than children who come from middle class families. These students begin their school years at a disadvantage, as they simply have more to learn.

Other indicators of the achievement gap focus on student success during and after high school. The data continues to show that fewer African American and Hispanic students graduate from high school than do their white or Asian peers. Similarly, fewer students from high-poverty schools graduate than do students from low-poverty schools. According to the NCES, fewer than 10 percent of African American or Hispanic students took rigorous academic courses in high school in 2009. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau report of 2010, more young women hold bachelor’s degrees than do young men.

Income by Education Level and Race

Educational attainment can be directly correlated to income potential, so as achievement gaps persist through and beyond high school, they can help predict disparities in earning potential and future socioeconomic status.

Can Students Overcome the Achievement Gap?

Ongoing research and the implementation of programs and strategies designed to close the achievement gap show that students can, indeed, overcome their varying disadvantages and rise to meet the performance of their peers.

Multiple studies published since the passage of NCLB show that achievement gaps are narrowing across the nation. African American and Hispanic students’ performance on NAEP improved significantly between 1990 and 2007. Minority students are also improving on measures of school readiness, and studies show that more widespread access to technology has helped students in all groups improve academic performance in critical areas.

Still, achievement gaps remain, and it is up to the educators and policymakers of today and tomorrow to continue to identify these gaps, get to the roots of the problems, and implement strategies to help students in all groups overcome the achievement gap.

Lesson Summary

The achievement gap refers to differences or gaps in performance experienced by students in different groups, as indicated by standardized test scores, grades, course selection, college completion rates, and other academic success measures. Student groups most widely affected by achievement gaps are African American and Hispanic students as compared to their non-Hispanic white peers, students with low socioeconomic status as compared to their peers from higher income families, and students whose native language is not English. Achievement gaps can be identified and measured, however, between many groups of students. While recent laws and academic policies have helped to close some achievement gaps for some groups, the achievement gap remains an important issue in education.


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