The achievement gap is defined as the disparity that exists between the test scores of White American students and African American and Hispanic or minority students. Test results indicate that White students score higher than minority students (except Asians) on measures of achievement. This gap is measured by test scores on a variety of instruments measuring intelligence, achievement, and aptitude. These include the National Assessment of Educational Progress, SAT, Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and other instruments administered in the public schools of the United States.
The achievement gap is a major concern to policy makers and educators alike, and much research has been done to discover the cause of this test score difference. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the achievement gap between Whites and African Americans is between 0.80 and 1.14 standard deviations. Between Whites and Hispanics, it is between 0.40 and 1.00. According to NAEP data, this gap exists both in reading and in math. The educational, social, and economic implications for minority students are huge. The dropout rate for minority teens is higher than for White teens, the high school graduation rate lower, and as a result, opportunities in the job market are substantially limited. Education is purported to be the great equalizer, but this gap persists and points to a significant problem in the educational system in the United States. This entry looks at the question: What is the cause of this achievement gap, and can the gap be closed?
In 1954, the Supreme Court decision reached in Brown v. Board of Education stated that the educational system in the United States was “separate and unequal.” African American and other minority children attended class in dilapidated buildings, with limited funding and resources. These conditions and their inherent discriminatory practices contributed to the early gaps in test scores between White and minority students.
In more recent times, test bias has been alleged by theorists who claim that the contents of achievement tests are biased in favor of White students, and thus the tests discriminate against minorities. Others have said minority students are inherently inferior intellectually and the achievement gap is proof. There has been no clear-cut evidence to support this claim, however, though it has been made throughout the last few centuries by various pundits.
In addition to these assertions, the research has investigated many other factors that may contribute to this gap. These include race, socioeconomic status, culture, teacher expectations, instructional practices, parent level of education, parent involvement, cultural capital, and various societal elements, even rap music. Basically, there is no evidence suggesting a cause of the achievement gap in education.
While definitive causes may not be available, landmark research conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley offers insight into what may be the origins of the problem and as a result, likely solutions. These researchers studied children from ten months to three years old in families from three socioeconomic backgrounds: welfare, middle class, and professional (specifically college professors’ families). Their study, which looked at the quantity of conversation in families as counted in words, suggests that for some children, the achievement gap begins before they enter the educational system.
They found that the average welfare child heard about 616 words per hour, compared to 1,251 words per hour for the average working-class child, and 2,153 words per hour for children in professional families. In four years of such experience, an average child in a professional family would have heard almost 45 million words, an average child in a working class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words. Thus, by the time the children enter school, their experiences are vastly different, with potential consequences. For example, a student who arrives at school having heard, let’s say, the word marvelous 1,000 times will most likely know that word and its usage, as compared to a child who had only heard it ten times or not at all. Experience with language offers a decided advantage. These findings moved the government to fund and implement a comprehensive preschool system, Head Start, aimed at closing the gap for children born into poverty.
Since researchers can’t come to a conclusion about why the achievement gap exists, they have sought solutions to decrease it. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), this goal was achieved for a period of thirteen years as indicated by data showing that the gap narrowed between 1975 and 1988. From 1990 to 1999, however, the gap remained the same or grew. In fact, according to the Education Trust, by the time African American and Hispanic students reach twelfth grade, their English, math, and science skills are similar to the skills of thirteen-year-old White students.
A Nation At Risk
What factors contributed to the narrowing of the achievement gap in the 1980s? Again there are many explanations espoused by the researchers. Title I supplied much needed government funding to economically depressed schools. Also, in 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report A Nation at Risk served notice on the entire educational system that the Unites States was lagging behind the nations of the world. The commission set forth the following recommendations:
- Graduation requirements should be strengthened in five new basics: English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science.
- Schools and colleges should adopt higher and measurable standards for academic performance.
- The amount of time students spend engaged in learning should be significantly increased.
- The teaching profession should be strengthened through higher standards for preparation and professional growth.
This prompted swift action as professional educational entities such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Council of Teachers of English, National Science Teachers Association, and the International Reading Association scrambled to raise the standards of academic achievement in our nation’s schools through the establishment of national standards. These standards were meant to offer strong content-based curriculum practices intended to increase student achievement through content.
The report, which focused on the test scores of the general student population, and its subsequent reaction by the educational community, seems to have had the positive effect of narrowing the achievement gap, according to a 2006 article in the American Journal of Education by Douglas Harris and Carolyn Herrington. The authors also stated that during the 1980s, when content and time standards (what is taught, and the amount of time spent teaching and learning) were improved, the achievement gap narrowed. They added, however, that during the 1990s, the gap remained the same or grew at the onset of the accountability focus in the form of high-stakes tests, school takeovers, vouchers, charter schools, and other government and market based accountability programs.
Another factor said to narrow the achievement gap is teacher quality. Highly qualified teachers can narrow the achievement gap just as incompetent teachers can widen it. Research indicates that high quality teaching can have lasting effects on student achievement. Unfortunately, poor quality teachers are concentrated in low performing schools. According to research, this is no coincidence. Being taught by a poor quality teacher can seriously affect student achievement. Among other findings, Steven Rivkin, Eric Hanushek, and John Kain found that high quality instruction in primary school may offset disadvantages associated with low socioeconomic background.
Quality Reading Instruction
Additional measures have been employed to improve overall student performance and combat the widening achievement gap. In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a meta-analysis detailing the “big five” of the instructional reading process: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The panel determined that systematic phonics instruction leads to significant positive benefits for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and for children with difficulty learning to read. They also found that professional development for teachers is necessary to improve the quality of reading instruction.
No Child Left Behind
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Education Act, was signed into law on January 8, 2002. The U.S. Department of Education stated that the law helps schools improve by focusing on accountability for results, freedom for states and communities, proven education methods, and choices for parents. One of the primary objectives of the legislation is to close the achievement gap, as stated in Title I, Section 100-Statement of Purpose,
The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments. This purpose can be accomplished by … closing the achievement gap between highand lowperforming children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and nonminority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers. . .
Various programs and projects, such as Reading First; Prevention and Intervention Programs for Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or at Risk; Family Literacy; Drop-Out Prevention; Advanced Placement Programs; and Comprehensive School Reform are funded through NCLB.
With any new government initiative, however, comes debate. NCLB is no exception. Many believe the program has inordinately increased stress on teachers and students through the use of high stakes testing to measure goal compliance. In general, a great deal of spirited conversation surrounds the effectiveness of some of the NCLB’s stipulations. Are the accountability measures improving teacher quality and academic achievement among all student groups? Is the achievement gap narrowing? Only time and data will be the judge.
- Baard, M. (2006). Scholars cite history’s legacy, rap music for achievement gap. Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 23, 20.
- Borman, G. D., & Kimball, S. M. (2005). Teacher quality and educational equality: Do teachers with higher standards-based evaluation ratings close student achievement gaps? Elementary School Journal, 106, 3–20.
- Harris, D. N., & Herrington, C. D. (2006). Accountability, standards, and the growing achievement gap: Lessons from the past half-century. American Journal of Education, 112, 209–237.
- Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful difference in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
- Jencks, C., & Phillips, M. (Eds.). (1998). The Black-White test score gap. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- A nation at risk. Retrieved March 21, 2008, from http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/index.html
- Rivkin, S. G., Hanushek, E. A., & Kain, J. F. (2005). Teachers, schools, and academic achievement. Econometrica, 73, 417–458.
- Stiefwl, L., Schwartz, A. E., & Ellen, I. G. (2006). Disentangling the racial test score gap: Probing the evidence in a large urban school district. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 26, 7–30.
- National Reading Panel: http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org
- No Child Left Behind, U.S. Department of Education: http://www.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml
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