How the Achievement Gap Affects Students (And the Rest of Us)

It’s narrower than it used to be, but still costing us plenty.

In this colorful illustration, graduating students receive their diplomas on the way to closing the educational achievement gap
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Carla Golembe / Getty Images​

The achievement gap is the disparity in educational attainment between different groups. Achievement gaps exist at every level of education. It is between groups based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental abilities, and income. Educational performance is measured by standardized tests, diplomas, access to higher education, or employment.

The achievement gap negatively affects individuals and society, as students miss out on job and career opportunities and the rest of us miss out on the contributions they might have made if there had been no gap.

Factors That Influence Educational Achievement

The National Educational Association cites eight areas that contribute to racial and income achievement gaps. They are divided into things schools can do something about and things outside of the school’s control.

Factors Under School Control

A school can improve class size and school safety. It can hire experienced teachers and make sure they are sensitive to cultural issues. The school can encourage students’ interest in education and involve the family when possible.

Factors Schools Can't Control

An individual school can’t control educational funding. Neither can a school affect other factors that influence the achievement gap such as family income, the students’ diet, language, and mobility. A school can’t influence a family’s cultural bias against the importance of education. Educators can’t do much about an unsafe neighborhood, access to libraries, or the lack of jobs. All of these factors can adversely affect educational achievement.

Educational Achievement and Race

Achievement gaps for racial minorities are correlated with gaps in income, poverty rates, unemployment rates, and parents’ education level. The Stanford Center for Policy Analysis found the correlation between achievement gaps and these socio-economic factors was at least 62% for Black communities and 83% for Latinx communities.

A 2009 McKinsey study found that the average score of Black and Latinx students on standardized tests was two to three years behind that of White students of the same age.

Similarly, the states that were wealthier have better education scores. Half of the states with the 10 best economies also have the best education scores.

Income alone doesn’t explain all of the gaps. Structural inequality is another culprit perpetuating the achievement gap.

Students from high-poverty schools don't receive equal government funding. A Department of Education study found that 45% of high-poverty schools received less state and local funding than other schools within their own districts.

A 2011 study found that minority families with incomes above $75,000 are still more likely to live in low-income communities than white families with incomes below $40,000. The schools in these neighborhoods are of a lower quality than those in affluent areas.

The research found that this accounts for 37% of the reason for lower math scores. One reason is that low-income schools have more uncredentialed or inexperienced teachers.

Educational Achievement and Gender

When it comes to gender, there are wide variations in achievement. Cisgender students are guided towards "gender appropriate" studies. LBGTQ students face these challenges plus outright discrimination both in K-12 and college.

Male and Female

The gender achievement gap depends on the subject matter. Female students test better than male students in reading, have higher grade point averages, and a higher rate of acceptance into college.

The opposite is true for math and science. Ninth-grade males outnumber females four to one in the American Mathematics Competition. This discrepancy worsens by 12th grade, according to a Wharton Business School study. As a result, women are under-represented in high-paying careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The cause of the gender gap is hotly debated.

The research shows that, although there are brain differences, it doesn’t necessarily mean boys’ brains are "hardwired" against reading. Other research shows that environmental factors also influence neurological predispositions.

Some studies indicate that boys avoid liberal arts because society says reading is feminine, and many boys are steered toward sports rather than academics.

Similarly, girls have been historically guided toward home economics classes instead of science, math, or economics. Even today, there are many stereotypes that discourage girls from taking STEM classes, and research has found that science and math teachers give boys more help in those areas.

Within schools, tracking guides students toward different careers. Many claim this guides minorities and women toward less lucrative jobs, while others argue that tracking is needed to give gifted children, from all groups, the best preparation to excel. Despite all the research and debate, there is no consensus on these theories.

LGBTQ

Overall, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Americans report a lot of discrimination that can add a heavy burden to educational achievement. For example, over half have of LGBTQ students have experienced slurs, sexual harassment, or violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Almost 60% of transgender students could not use the bathroom that conformed to their gender identity.

LGBTQ high school students experience higher truancy, lower grades, and lower expectations to complete high school or college. High-school students who experience same-sex sexuality are less likely to complete college, but men who experience same-sex sexuality in college do not face this gap.

Economic Impact of Educational Achievement Gaps

A McKinsey study estimates that the achievement gap has cost the U.S. economy more than all recessions since the 1970s combined.

For the 10 year period 1998-2008, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) would have been $525 billion higher in 2008 if there were no race-based achievement gap.

Similarly, if low-income students had the same educational achievement as their wealthier peers over that same period, they would have added $670 billion in GDP.

This is because education increases the income that generates greater economic growth. Over a lifetime, Americans with college degrees earn 84% more than those with only high school degrees.

A 2018 Federal Reserve study evaluated the contributions of several demographic factors to family income and wealth. These included two "inherited" characteristics—age of the head of the family and race—and one "acquired" characteristic—a college degree.

A college degree is a more significant predictor of family income and wealth than inherited characteristics. For the most advantaged families, a college degree means an 11% increase in wealth and income over what they would have achieved based on inherited characteristics alone. For poor and minority families, a college degree boosts income 23 points and wealth 20 points over other families with the same inherited characteristics.

Higher-income families add to consumer spending, which drives about 70% of the economy. Manufacturers ramp up to meet the added demand, creating more jobs. Workers' wages rise, creating more spending—It's a cycle that generates continued economic expansion.

Trends in Educational Achievement

Between 1970 and 2012, racial achievement gaps have shrunk by 30% to 40%. The gaps are still very large, according to the Stanford Center for Policy Analysis. Most of the gains have come from an increase in Black and Latinx achievement scores in math and reading. At the same time, White scores have remained at the same levels.

An ACT research study found a slight improvement in the gender achievement gap between 1998 and 2009. For the most part, female freshman students continued to outperform male students in all college courses. The largest gender achievement gap occurred in English Composition I and College Algebra. The study found that males did improve during that time in English Composition I and Biology.

The Bottom Line

The educational achievement gaps are pervasive and expensive. Some gaps are due to income, some to societal expectations, and some to structural inequality. These gaps limit economic growth even more than all recessions combined.

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