Researchers Call for More Studies on the Causes of the Achievement Gap

Because part of the PreK-12 Learning Group’s mission is equitable access to a quality education for all students, we have been following recent research on the achievement gap and what gains the U.S. has (and has not) made in closing the gap. (Read more herehere, and here.) The most recent study from the Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy says “Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement remain a stubborn feature of U.S. schooling.” The researchers, analyzing the trends in NAEP results as far back as 1971, found that today, low-income students still score much lower than students from high-income families, and non-White students’ average scores are below those of their white counterparts. However, the ethnic/racial gaps are smaller than they were 30-40 years ago.

Key trends

  • The black-white achievement gaps in both math and reading narrowed from the early 1970s through the late 1980s, widened during the 1990s, but now has been consistently narrowing since 1999.
  • While the data is limited, there is evidence that there have been “modest decreases” in the Hispanic-white achievement gap over the past 20 years with the reading gap behaving like the Black-white achievement gap. In math, though, the Hispanic-white gap has been consistently smaller.
  • Regarding the gap between socio-economic groups, since this has not been explicitly tracked, the researchers tried looking at the scores of students whose parents have only a high school diploma versus a 4-yr. college degree. The researchers estimate that the reading gap between these two groups of students is larger than it has ever been over the past 30 years.

Overall, the researchers found no single mitigating factor to predict achievement gaps, thus calling for more detailed research into the achievement gaps.

“Although it is clear that family background and schooling each play some role in the development of achievement gaps, we do not have good evidence on exactly how—or how much—each contributes,” conclude the authors. “Nor do we have any good evidence regarding the extent to which these processes may vary among racial or ethnic groups. Most importantly, without a good understanding of the mechanisms that produce these gaps, we have very little evidence regarding how we might reduce them.”

Read “Patterns and Trends in Racial/Ethnic and Socioeconomic Academic Achievement Gaps,” by Sean F. Reardon, Joseph P. Robinson, Ericka S. Weathers, Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy (Second ed.) (2016)


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