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What is Achievement Gap and Why Should We Care

When I researched data about students’ academic performance in my state and the country, one obvious pattern repeats in almost all kinds of report cards (state or national; math, reading, or science): the difference in test scores among students of different races. This phenomenon actually reflects one key issue in education which has garnered the attention of many researchers, educators, and policymakers— the achievement gap. But what exactly does this term refer to? The achievement gap, simply put, "Is the persistent disparity in academic achievement between minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts" ( The chart below tells the story— it is quite clear there is a major difference in scores among the different racial groups.

Average scale scores for grade 4 mathematics, by Race/ethnicity, used to report trends, National


This achievement gap is nothing new and has changed over time. According to Stanford researchers, the racial achievement gap narrowed greatly since the 1970s in both math and reading, then progress stalled. Some of the gaps grew larger in the late 1980s and 1990s. Since then, achievement gaps have been declining, though they still remain very large today.

White-Black and White-Hispanic Achievement Gaps Over the Past 40 Years


The racial achievement gap may have improved, but it may very well be replaced by another gap, namely the income achievement gap. Stanford’s Reardon argues that the performance difference among student subgroups is largely explained by their family income, rather than by race. And such an income achievement gap has actually widened in the past 50 years by his research.

Income Achievement Gap and Black-White Achievement Gap in Reading for 1943–2001 Birth Cohorts


Why should we care about the achievement gap? To me, the disparity prevents low-income students and/or students of color from achieving their full potential. Low scores mean a higher chance of high school dropout and less possibility to go to college. The gap would also make upward mobility difficult to obtain, as evidence suggests that higher education provides better earning and employment opportunities; further, our society will become polarized, not only in terms of resources allocation but more importantly, in the distribution of political power.

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