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Achievement Gaps
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What are the Achievement Gaps?

  1. Achievement Gap in Race

Black and Hispanic Students Improve on NAEP Math Scores More than White Students between 1977 and 1999

Long Term Trends from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal that black and Hispanic students made greater gains between 1977 and 1999 than white students on NAEP math scores. NAEP scores also reveal that the lowest achieving students made greater gains than the highest achieving students.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

National Assessment of Educational Progress (1999).Long term trend assessment.U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved March 29, 2002 from

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Between 1977 and 1999, all race and ethnic groups identified by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) improved their math scores. However, based on NAEP data, blacks and Hispanics made greater total gains (averaging all age and achievement levels). See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Total Racial Gain on NAEP Math Scores: 1977-1999

When and Where Do Gains Occur?

The total gains do not tell the whole story. In order to understand the gains made by the different groups over the past22 years, several questions still need to be answered:

  • When do the gains occur?
  • What age groups make the most gain?
  • What achievement levels gain the most?

When Do Gains Occur for Different Groups?

Gains in math scores by the different groups were not even over time. Different groups gained more at different times. When we compare the average race math scores for one testing period with the scores of the previous period, we get a picture of the time period during which the most gains were made. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. Average Race Gain in NAEP Math Scores over Previous Testing Period

From Figure 2 we can see that black and Hispanic students made most of their gains before 1992. However, across the testing period, black students' math scores have dropped from the previous period only twice (in 1992 and 1999). Hispanic students' math scores have lost ground only in one testing period (1994). In neither case did the losses completely offset the previous gains made—especially in the period before 1992. White student scores have also not gained as quickly after 1992 as in the two previous testing periods (1986 and 1990). However, for white students, there is no testing period where their scores have averaged lower than the previous testing period.

What Age Groups Gain Most for Different Groups?

NAEP math tests are given to 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. Which of these groups made the most improvement over the initial NAEP math scores since 1977? Figure 3 indicates that different age groups performed differently depending on whether the students were white, black, or Hispanic.

Figure 3. Total NAEP Math Score Gain by Age Group

As we see, the youngest group of white students made the most total improvement since 1977. This contrasts with both black and Hispanic students. For both black and Hispanic students, 13-year-olds made the greatest total gains. Hispanic 17-year-olds were the only group of 17-year-olds to make greater improvement than the youngest group of students. In general, younger black and white students gained more, while older Hispanic students gained more on NAEP math scores.

What Achievement Levels Gain the Most?

NAEP data also indicate that students at different ability levels had different levels of improvement. Figures 4-6 show the total improvement each racial/ethnic age group made, controlling for ability level. Ability levels are defined in terms of percentile rank on the NAEP math tests.

Figure 4. Gain on NAEP Math Tests by White Students of Different Ability Levels
Figure 5. Gain on NAEP Math Tests by Black Students of Different Ability Levels
Figure 6. Gain on NAEP Math Tests by Hispanic Students of Different Ability Levels

Figures 4-6 present a common pattern for all racial/ethnic groups. For all groups, at all age levels, student groups improved overall on their initial NAEP math scores. Students at the lowest achievement levels (students at the 5th percentile) made the greatest gains in all groups—with low-achieving black and Hispanic students making the greatest gains. Likewise, the highest achieving students of all racial/ethnic groups made the least overall improvement.

The Bottom Line

While all students of all races and all ability groups improved their math scores between 1977 and 1999, the pattern of improvement changed depending on racial/ethnic group, age group, and achievement level. In very general terms, we see the following patterns:

  • Black and Hispanic students made greater overall gains in NAEP math scores between 1977 and 1999.
  • The greatest gains by black and Hispanic students were made largely before 1992.
  • The average gains for white students have slowed somewhat since 1992.
  • The youngest two-thirds of white and black students made the greatest overall math score gains.
  • The oldest two-thirds of Hispanic students made the greatest overall math score gains.
  • The youngest white students (9-year-olds) made the greatest total gains of white students.
  • The 13-year-old group of black and Hispanic students made the greatest total gains of either group.


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