The Truth Behind the Academic Gap

Education is meant to be the great equalizer for society, but reality shows continued disparity in terms of educational outcomes along the lines of race and income. The achievement gap, the opportunity gap, the academic gap—these all refer to a systemic difference in educational performance for students of color compared to their white peers or for students in poverty compared to students in more affluent communities. There is something wrong with a system that continues to replicate an outcome of inequity. Though there is much debate about its origin, we’ve heard insanity defined as, “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Yet, according to Teach For America, here we are with a “public school system [that] is remarkably impervious to innovation, adaptation, and change” and that “hasn’t changed in 100 years.”

THE WHAT: Let’s take a look at the data.

For reading and mathematics, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results are reported as scores on a scale ranging from 0–500 at grades 4 and 8. The NAEP then determined achievement levels that show whether the student is performing at a Basic, Proficient, or Advanced level.

Screen Shot 2019-02-21 at 10.45.53 AM

The following chart shows the average NAEP scores of students in grades 4 and 8 when the assessment was originally administered in 1990 along with the most recent 2017 results.

Screen Shot 2019-02-21 at 10.46.08 AMa) This score is from 1996 as this was the first year data was collected for the selected group.
b) This score is from 2003 as this was the first year data was collected for the selected group.
c) This score is from 2000 as this was the first year data was collected for the selected group.
d) This score is from 1998 as this was the first year data was collected for the selected group.
e) This score is from 2002 as this was the first year data was collected for the selected group.
f) Access the complete Mathematics Proficiency results at https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/math_2017/nation/achievement?grade=4
g) Access the complete Reading Proficiency results at https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2017/nation/achievement?grade=4

The good news?

  • In almost every student group, student achievement has increased since 1990.
  • In many areas, the gaps between student groups are narrowing.

The bad news?

  • 4th Grade reading proficiency in students who identify as American Indian has declined.
  • English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities continue to perform far below their peers.
  • Though it has narrowed, the academic gap still persists for students who identify as Black, Hispanic, or American Indian and for students who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program (in conjunction with the federal poverty guidelines).

What about the most recent data? Well, let’s zoom in on Missouri who, earlier this month, released the Missouri Assessment Program exams results from last year in their 2018 Annual Performance Report. Columbia Public Schools compiled specific district data into a user-friendly district scorecard where we, once again, see the same academic gap trends. I’ve selected Jefferson City’s data to show below, as it is the capital of Missouri; however, you can view all Missouri school districts at the link above.

In English Language Arts, the percent of students scoring above proficient and advanced levels were:

  • 21.1% of students with disabilities
  • 23.5% of English Language Learner students
  • 25.7% of black students
  • 35.3% of students who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program
  • 39.5% of Hispanic students
  • 54.1% of white students
  • 84.1% of Asian/Pacific Islander students

In math, the percent of students scoring above proficient and advanced levels were:

  • 11.9% of students with disabilities
  • 17.2% of black students
  • 19.7% of English Language Learner students
  • 27.6% of Hispanic students
  • 27.9% of students who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program
  • 47.9% of white students
  • 76.1% of Asian/Pacific Islander students

SO WHAT: What do experts say we should do about it?

Many experts agree that the achievement gap is a literacy gap. According to the Literacy Lab, “Investing in early literacy is one of the most effective ways to help improve individual children’s outcomes while at the same time improving schools on the whole. Improving reading skills helps children access all other subjects and makes teachers’ core instruction more effective.”

Columbia Public Schools is placing an increased emphasis on attendance as a key to closing the achievement gap.

In her book, Narrowing the Literacy Gap: What Works in High-Poverty Schools, Diane Barone “emphasizes the key role of teacher-student interactions in overcoming barriers to learning.”

Overall, I believe Teach For America captured the solution best:

No single solution will bring an equitable and excellent education to every child. Although we look to education to help children overcome obstacles like systemic racism and poverty, our school system was not designed for today’s children who count on school to access opportunity in America. But people designed this system, and so people can reimagine and rebuild it to enable all children to reach their full potential.What will that take? It will take sustained leadership challenging the status quo from inside and outside the classroom. It will take a broad and diverse coalition—educators, advocates, entrepreneurs, policymakers, community members—fighting for the aspirations of children and their families by pushing for systems change.

Let this be a reminder and call to each of us, that in whatever job or position we hold, we need to continue fighting for educational equity. For the sake of our children and our children’s children, we must.


meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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