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Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

What Contributes to the Achievement Gap?

The Center on Education Policy identifies an array of factors in the school, the community, and the home that may be contributing causes of the achievement gap.

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

Kober, N. (2001).It takes more than testing: Closing the achievement gap.Center on Education Policy. Retrieved April 4, 2002 from (Adobe® Reader® PDF).
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To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

The Gap Starts Early

Nancy Kober, author of the Center on Education Policy’s report,It Takes More Than Testing: Closing the Achievement Gap, notes that the achievement gap starts early on in school. Surveys of children in preschool and kindergarten have revealed that white and Asian children typically perform better than black and Hispanic children in areas such as vocabulary, numbers skills, and general knowledge. For example, a 1998 Department of Education study showed that black kindergarten students already fell behind white and Asian children on early reading skills: only 57% of black kindergarteners could recognize letters. This compares with 71% of white kindergarteners.

The Explanation Is More than Socioeconomic

Kober says that there is no question that family income and parent education help explain the achievement gap. But one study found that these factors only account for about one-third of the explanation. So, argues Kober,there is more to the explanation than simply family income and parent education.

Kober specifically lists the following factors—at the school and community/home levels—that help account for the achievement gap:

School Factors

  • Black and Hispanic students tend to take less-rigorous courses. Though there are more black and Hispanic students taking academically rigorous courses now than in the past, whites and Asians still tend to be overrepresented in such courses. In part this situation results from the lack of advanced courses at high-minority schools. In particular, researchers have found that schools in high-minority or high-poverty areas often offer a less-rigorous curriculum to begin with. They thereby fail to challenge students, since they cover less material or give less homework. This is a problem because research has found that students enrolled in challenging courses—in topics such as algebra, trigonometry, chemistry, and advanced English—usually have higher test scores than their peers.
  • There is a lack of experienced teachers. Kober points out that black students are more likely to be taught by less-experienced teachers than white students. Researchers have cited this factor as one of the most critical variables for explaining the achievement gap: there is a correlation between higher teacher certification scores and higher student achievement scores. Teachers in districts where there are high percentages of black or Hispanic students tend to have lower scores on their certification tests.
  • Teachers set their expectations low. Studies have suggested that teachers sometimes have lower academic expectations for black and Hispanic children than they do for whites or Asians. Kober warns that by setting expectations low, teachers run the risk of perpetuating the achievement gap since they do not encourage black and Hispanic students to follow a rigorous curriculum.
  • Resource disparities handicap schools. Low-minority schools tend to be much better funded and have all-around stronger resources than do high-minority schools. The same relationship holds true for schools in low-poverty versus high-poverty areas. There is persuasive evidence that this factor contributes to the achievement gap. For example, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show the achievement gap between low-poverty and high-poverty schools increased throughout the 1990s.
  • Low-income and minority students tend to be concentrated in certain schools. Kober notes that if a school has high levels of poverty, that can depress achievement for all the children in that school, even if they are from higher income families. This fact hits black and Hispanic children the hardest, since they are more likely to attend higher poverty schools than are whites or Asians.
  • Student performance anxiety hampers minority students. Some research has suggested that black students can become anxious about corresponding to negative racial stereotypes in their academic work. The result, researchers say, is a kind of vicious circle: black students can be so worried about seeming stereotypically ungifted academically that their anxiety actually makes them perform less well than they could.
  • Peer pressure may cause students to scorn academic success. Kober notes that there is some dispute as to the effects of peer pressure. Some researchers, for example, have pointed to a phenomenon in high-minority schools whereby black students who perform poorly actually criticize their academically successful peers for "acting white." These researchers have charged that black students tend to idolize a youth culture that scorns academic achievement. However, other researchers have argued that such a culture exerts no special power on black students in particular; instead, they claim that black students are no more likely to scorn school than are whites.
  • Access to high-quality preschool is a necessity. Since minority children are more likely than whites to live in single-parent households and to enter school already developmentally behind, then high-quality preschool is imperative for these children. Nonetheless, Kober finds, children of lower income households are much less likely to attend preschool than are children of more affluent families.
  • The school’s disciplinary atmosphere also plays a role. Minority students are less likely than white students to attend schools with good facilities and a well-controlled disciplinary atmosphere. In turn, high-minority schools often have special safety issues that worry the students’ parents.

Community and Home Factors

  • Poverty affects achievement. Kober admits that differences in family income are not a sufficient explanation for the achievement gap. But there is unquestionably a relationship here. Kober says that there are many factors associated with poverty that can depress achievement:
  • health problems

    poor nutrition

    low birth weight

    substandard housing

    high violence

    substance abuse
  • Discrimination leaves a legacy. The harmful effects of segregated schooling and similar forms of discrimination will continue to persist for several decades, studies show. These effects can persist as a family link: children whose grandparents’ educational achievement was limited or restricted may not enjoy the benefits of a family that values or encourages rigorous academics. Such values may simply not be a part of the family’s culture, partly because past discrimination inhibited the grandparents’ achievement. Moreover, other forms of discrimination, such as in housing or employment, can also negatively impact a child’s educational opportunities.
  • Home and community learning opportunities are critical. In general, minority children are less likely than white children to have parents with high levels of educational attainment. This factor, together with others such as lower family income and parents’ work schedules, may limit the extent to which parents can foster positive opportunities for learning at home, Kober claims. Hence, opportunities such as having access to books and computers—or even being read to before bedtime—may be more limited for minority children. Also, it is an established fact that high-minority and high-poverty communities tend to enjoy less access to such resources as libraries and museums that can benefit children. Finally, if the family speaks a language other than English at home, that can also affect a child’s learning opportunities.
  • Good parenting practices need to be encouraged. Parental approaches to learning at home differ, and cultural variations undoubtedly play a role in children’s learning and achievement. However, the most effective practices should be encouraged, although more research is necessary to determine which do provide the greatest benefits.

WhatDoes NotExplain the Achievement Gap

Nancy Kober asserts that the achievement gap is not simply a result of ethnically or racially biased tests. Similar ethnic/racial gaps appear in various tests, whether multiple-choice or another format. This is a sign of difference in achievement and not merely of biased testing. Nonetheless, Kober does stress that tests must be designed to be free of bias.

Research Design: The report surveys test score data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), as well as from the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Policy suggestions are taken from studies of school districts in North Carolina, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island.


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