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Educational Inequality: The Achievement Gap in the American School System

Mariel Vander Schuur | Michigan, USA

Studies of test scores, grade point averages, high school graduation rates, and various other indicators of academic achievement have begun to note a severe breach across the boards of ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic background. These distinct apertures have become known as the Achievement Gap.

Wealth-Based Achievement Gap

1 in 5 children in the United States lives below the federal poverty line. Meaning, before 20% of American children even step foot in the classroom each year, their family’s income has placed them several steps behind their more affluent peers. Furthermore, while gender and race based gaps have shown much improvement over the years, a study conducted by Professor Sean Reardon of Stanford University has found that the gap between lower and higher income students has only continued to grow.

Wealthier students have consistently performed better than their lower-income contemporaries for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, children who belong to lower-income households are “less likely to have access to high-quality, learning-rich environments” (Sacks). Often times the financial state of the children and their families will mimic the schools that they attend. Less affluent children are forced to attend the most accessible schools in their area, even if these schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and understaffed. They are unable to obtain the same quality of education as their richer peers, and therefore, generally, unable to perform as well as them in school and on standardized tests.

Additionally, it is becoming increasingly more common for parents to do everything possible outside of school ensure that their children are prepared for standardized testing and the college application process.

This means everything from expensive Ivy summer programs, to ACT and SAT tutors, to specialized college counsellors, or to costly extracurriculars such as dance classes, instrument lessons, or club sports. In other words, out-of-school assistance that lower-income students cannot afford.

Not only are these students unable to take part in the activities that place their peers so far ahead, but they even frequently have inadequate time to simply do their homework, or study on their own, free of charge. If your family is living below the American poverty line, and you are of age to work a part-time job, that is likely what you will choose to do with your time.

Students should not have to worry about paying for basic necessities, such as food, clothing, or shelter, but these things take priority over studies to the students who have had to go without them.

Racial Achievement Gap

When media refers to the achievement gap, they are typically referencing the  gap between White students and students of color. Historically, Whites have performed significantly better than Blacks and Hispanics in their grade point average and on standardized tests.

For example, according to data provided by ACT, Inc. (the nonprofit organization that develops and delivers the official ACT standardized test), 35% of the one million White students who took the ACT in 2015 met the college-readiness benchmark, compared to only 6% of the 250,000 Black students, creating a devastating 29 percent deficit. Similarly, in 3rd through 8th grade in New York City, “...40% of black students met state standards in the 2010 math tests. This is compared with 75% of white students” (Beilock). Such data is found across the board. Overwhelmingly, from GPA to test scores to high school graduation rates, White’s outperform and outcompete their Black and Hispanic peers.

The possible causes of the racial achievement gap are widely disputed, but it is highly likely that the gap stems from a combination of factors, as opposed to a single one.

To account for the disproportionate achievement rates between races in elementary schools, experts often cite the large amount of single-parent households. In 2016, 66% of Black children and 42% of Hispanic children lived in single-parent households (compared to only 24% of White children), putting them at a significant disadvantage, seeing as studies have shown that students are able to better perform in school when they have a parent to help them, and that single parents are less likely to be able to assist their child with homework and studies.

Other researchers believe that the gap stems from something less tangible than single-parent households: culture, implicit bias, and stereotypes. If a parent has high standards and expectations for how their children will perform in school, the children will tend to at least attempt to reach that expectation. The same goes for minorities and their teachers in the education system. Common preconceived notions about these students affect them early on. If they have teachers that subconsciously subscribe to the idea that Black and Hispanic students are less intelligent than their Asian and White contemporaries, the expectations of the teacher are “often a self-fulfilling prophecy” (“Common Causes of the Achievement Gap”).

What Can Be Done to Close the Gap

For students who struggle financially, the plan for the future is a little more clear. In order to combat achievement gaps, schools need to offer after school help, free of charge, to students who need it.

A big reason why lower-income students are not performing as well on standardized tests, or in school in general, is because when less-affluent students struggle with a subject, they are often unable to afford help in the form of a private tutor.

In addition to after school programs, combating the wealth based achievement gap should begin before impoverished students have even begun school. By the time a lower-income kid has started school, they know thousands of words fewer than the wealthiest of their classmates. They start years behind these students, and will likely never catch up. Fortunately, the way to combat this problem is simple. In order to close what is known as ‘the word gap’, and start a less-affluent child on the same playing ground as their peers, it is essential that parents encourage their children to read (Van Buren).

For closing the gap that exists between racial groups, it’s a little more difficult because it’s a matter of changing cultural ideals and biases (aka: things money or public policy can’t change). In order to bring the scores and grade point averages of Black and Hispanics up further, we as a society need to change our expectations. The higher expectations that teachers and parents have for minority students, the better they will perform.

Time and time again, it has been proven that no race is inherently more intelligent than the other, meaning that, hypothetically, it is possible to achieve virtually indistinguishable scores across the board.

Sources and Further Reading

Stanford CEPA Working Paper “Gender Achievement Gaps in US School Districts”:

The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University “Facts on Achievement  Gaps”:

“Achievement Gap in the United States”:

Stanford CEPA “The Widening Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor”:

“The Other Achievement Gap: Poverty and Academic Success”:

“Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: It’s Time to Look Beyond the Classroom”:

“Common Causes of the Achievement Gap”:

“The Word Gap: The Early Years Make the Difference”:


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