A New Study Spots a Narrowing of the Achievement Gap

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September 5, 2016, The Boston Globe

Globe correspondent Megan Scudellari reports that researchers are noticing a welcome reversal in the decades long widening of the “achievement gap”—the variations in academic skills between low-income students and their better-off peers. The achievement gap shows up in many places, such as standardized test scores, class grades, and dropout rates, among many other success measures. This deficit can choke off progress and opportunity for poor and typical minority students throughout their academic careers.

But after decades of researchers, educators, and policymakers watching this gap grow by as much as 40 percent, the trends are very possibly turning in the opposite direction—at least for poor children entering kindergarten.

“Because income inequality and segregation have continued to grow, we expected that we would see a continuing or flattening out of the pattern. We certainly didn’t expect to see the gap narrowing over this time period,” says study coauthor Sean Reardon, a professor in the School of Education at Stanford University.

This good news is qualified. At this rate of progress, the authors of the study estimate it will take another 60 to 110 years for the gap to be eliminated for kindergartners.

In 1998 and 2010, early childhood assessors from the ECLS sat down with children at roughly 1,000 kindergartens around the country to measure students’ academic skills at the start of the school year.

Comparing information from those two years, Reardon and Portilla were surprised to find that by 2010 the school readiness gap between the rich and poor had narrowed—by 10  percent in math and 16  percent in reading. Gaps between racial groups, which have been declining for the last decade, continued to decline: White-black and white-Hispanic gaps decreased by roughly 15 percent across both subjects.

Scudellari reports that a companion research paper by Reardon and others looked at what might have caused these positive findings. Public awareness campaigns about the benefits of reading to children, better parent engagement, trips to libraries and museums, better-funded preschool programs, and the use of technology improved since 1998.

This positive uptick could be a momentary aberration. Since the research only measured progress to 2010, before the full effects of the Great Recession would be felt, the researchers worry that rising income inequality and segregation may be creating “too stiff a wind to sail against for very long.”

In principle, the public is behind closing the achievement gap, but levels of concern over “closing the gap” vary widely and are politically charged. Education reform is a subject regularly reviewed by NPQ. Disparities in academic achievement are the result of a complex web of social, economic, and educational conditions; school funding issues not the least of them. The Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, and many others make the case that low-income students and racial minorities are concentrated in the lowest-achieving schools.

Whether closing the achievement gap for the nation takes 60 years or forever, we have opportunities in each of our respective communities and schools to do what we can to help that child achieve his or her greatest potential.

This is a challenging subject that NPQ will continue to watch and analyze for its readers.—James Schaffer