What is the Achievement Gap?

The achievement gap can be defined as the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. This disparity can show up as the difference in standardized test scores, dropout rates, promotion rates, college acceptance rates, and AP and honors course selection rates.

What Contributes to the Achievement Gap in Education?

The differences in the scores and rates of students of color versus the scores and rates of non-Hispanic white students highlight this disparity and define the achievement gap. Factors that contribute to the achievement gap are not only based on race, though. They can also be traced to gender, socio-economic status, learning disabilities, and English proficiency.

Over the past 20 years, lawmakers and policy-writers have started to focus on decreasing and eliminating this gap, as it serves as evidence of an unequal education system. Locally, state and federal funding for school in low socio-economic areas, grants, and policy have been designed with intentions to “level the playing field” for students who fall into these marginalized groups.

One of the largest contributing factors is socio-economic status. This affects nearly every aspect of a student’s life. Due to systemic racism and past practices of redlining neighborhoods, black and brown families have endured generational poverty that has kept them from progressing and moving into neighborhoods that are in school districts or counties with more resources due to higher tax bases. In addition to the gaps that are created by inequalities within the education system, there are environmental aspects to living in poverty that contribute to higher rates of absenteeism and dropouts.

Strategies for Closing the Achievement Gap

Here are a few strategies to help begin to stop the pervasiveness of the disparities that contribute to the achievement gap.

State & Federal Funding

Law and policy-makers should continue to support local and national funding including the recognition of Title I Schools. To be considered a Title I School-Wide school, the school enrollment must have at least 70% of its student population qualifying for the free or reduced lunch program. Several areas that Title I funds may be used for are school-wide programs such as intervention tools, staffing (teachers and paraprofessionals), and resources to increase parent engagement. School districts must apply for Title I funds through their state’s grant portal and are held accountable for fund spending through audits and reporting. This funding allows schools with low fund balances to have a chance at equalizing the educational opportunities for marginalized students.

Communities Resources in Schools

Students who live in poverty often have limited access to public and private services. One way to work towards closing the achievement gap is to help meet student needs at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Leaders in education are now advocating for this and changing the way their school buildings look and run to include health services such as dentistry, primary care physicians, mental health professionals, case management, social workers, and vision specialists. It is almost impossible for students to focus on learning when they have tooth pain or can’t see the board in class because they need glasses. One organization that has led this work is called Communities in Schools. According to their website, 95% of seniors that they served graduated with a diploma or received a GED and 86% of their students met or made progress toward at least one of their academic goals. While this model is a goal for many schools, even if they do not have the Community in Schools program, many more have school-based therapists than before. These therapists see students in the school building so that parents do not need to find transportation or miss work for their child to receive mental health services.

Positive Behavior Intervention Supports

Positive Behavior Intervention Supports is a system that supports students in their behavior and academics. According to their website, PBIS is an “evidence-based three-tiered framework to improve and integrate all of the data, systems, and practices affecting student outcomes every day.” Through the use of PBIS, students are identified through the use of data to be placed into one of three tiers for intervention.

Generally, interventions are targeted to improve attendance, academic performance, or behavior. The key to PBIS is the positive frame. Once tiered, the interventions are designed to support students with positivity, not to be misconstrued as a negative consequence. For example, students who live in poverty have high rates of truancy and absenteeism. This can be traced to root causes such as lack of transportation, siblings babysitting siblings and playing the role of parent, or lack of medical care. This directly translates to lower academic achievement. Students can’t learn if they aren’t in school to receive instruction.

Within the PBIS framework, students who are identified as truant would be positively rewarded for regular attendance and decreased tardiness/absences, instead of receiving a negative consequence such as detention for missing school or arriving late.

Access to High-Level Curriculum

Despite gaps in achievement, all students have the right to learn and have access to high-level curriculum and learning. In the past, segregated schools did not use the same rigorous curricula and students did not have equal access to high-level learning materials. Decades and generations later, we see the effects of this in low-income, high-poverty neighborhoods. Inequitable access to curriculum made attending institutions of higher education impossible for generations.

It is imperative that we as educators continue to use our resources to advocate for equitable curriculum access in order to work towards closing the achievement gap in our youth. This means that districts must apply for grants to bring additional resources and interventions to our schools, and administrators must be purposeful in scheduling and creating high-level courses. Many times, low-income schools eliminate AP or honors courses due to low enrollment. Even if there is one student who could take the course, it is worth offering. Additionally, vertical mapping and curriculum writing should be written intentionally to support and scaffold students to reach these higher-level courses. Students will continue to be motivated to achieve if they are given the opportunity and support to reach higher.