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.
••• Carla Golembe / Getty Images​Owner

The achievement gap is the difference in educational attainment between two different groups. Achievement gaps exist at every level of education and between groups based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities, and income. Educational attainment is measured by standardized tests, diplomas, access to higher education, or employment. Some achievement gaps have narrowed in the past 50 years, although they persist. That means individual students miss out on job and career opportunities, while the rest of us miss out on the contributions they might have made to our economy.

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. For example, 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.

On the other hand, an individual school can’t control school funding—or the lack of it. 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. A school 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 blacks and 83% for Hispanics.

A 2009 McKinsey study found that the average score of black and Hispanic 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. They are: New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Washington.

But income doesn’t explain all of the gaps. Many scholars also blame structural inequality. 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 districts.

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

Students in low-income neighborhoods receive an inferior education than students in wealthier 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 underqualified or inexperienced teachers.

Educational Achievement and Gender

The gender achievement gap depends on the subject matter. Girls test better than boys on reading. Girls also have higher grade point averages and a higher rate of acceptance into college. But the opposite is true for math and science. Ninth-grade boys outnumber girls four to one in the prestigious American Mathematics Competition; this discrepancy worsens by 12th grade, according to a Wharton Business School study. One result of this gap is that women are less represented in high-paying careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

As for the gap between boys and girls in reading, the cause of this is also 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. Others indicate that boys avoid liberal arts because society says reading is feminine. Still more studies point out how 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. In addition, 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. 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.

Economic Impact of Educational Achievement Gaps

The McKinsey study noted above estimates that the achievement gap has cost the U.S. economy more than all recessions since the 1970s combined. For example, for the 10 year period 1998-2008, U.S. gross domestic product 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.

Why is this? 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.

Education is also a powerful factor in improving economic mobility. 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. While the inherited characteristics were decisive in predicting family income and wealth, the study found that a college degree is clearly a significant family income and wealth generator. For the most advantaged families, a college degree means an 11 percentile increase in wealth and income over what they would have achieved based on inherited characteristics alone. For poor and minority families, however, 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. That 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 virtuous cycle that generates continued economic expansion.

Trends in Educational Achievement

Between 1970 and 2012, racial achievement gaps have shrunk 30% to 40%. But 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 Hispanic 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. But the study found that males did improve during that time in English Composition I and Biology.

The Bottom Line

The racial, income, and gender achievement gaps in U.S. education are pervasive. Although they have been well studied, they are not clearly understood. Some are tied to income, some to societal expectations, and some to structural inequality. Although it is improving in some areas, the fact that it remains hurts economic growth even more than recessions. Policies that help children achieve a college degree would go a long way toward boosting economic growth.

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