Achievement Gap


Closely related to learning gap and opportunity gap, the term achievement gap refers to any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students, such as white students and minorities, for example, or students from higher-income and lower-income households.

Generally speaking, achievement gap refers to outputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of educational results and benefits—while opportunity gap refers to inputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities. Learning gap refers to relative performance of individual students—i.e., the disparity between what students have actually learned and what they were expected to learn at a particular age or grade level.

While particular achievement gaps may vary significantly in degree or severity from group to group or place to place, achievement gaps are defined by their consistency and persistence—i.e., achievement gaps are not typically isolated or passing events, but observable and predictable trends that remain relatively stable and enduring over time. While it is possible that some educators may use achievement gap in reference to individual student achievement, it is more likely that a term such as learning gap will be used: achievement gap nearly always refers to disparities of achievement between or among student groups.

The most commonly discussed achievement gap in the United States is the persistent disparity in national standardized-test scores between white and Asian-American students, two groups that score higher on average, and African-American and Hispanic students, two groups that score lower on average. Another achievement gap that has received considerable attention in recent years is the lagging performance of American students on international tests in comparison to students from other developed countries. Although disparities in test scores tend to be the most discussed, scrutinized, and reported achievement gaps, educational performance and attainment disparities may appear in a wide variety of data sets, including graduation rates, college-enrollment rates, college-completion rates, course grades, dropout rates, absenteeism rates, and disciplinary infractions, among many other possible categories of student-achievement data tracked by government agencies, districts, and schools.

The following list provides a representative sample of the major student subgroups that tend to exhibit achievement gaps:

  • White and minority students
  • Male and female students
  • Students from higher-income and lower-income households and communities
  • Native English-speaking students and students who are learning English or who cannot speak English, including recently arrived immigrant or refugee students (see English-language learner)
  • Nondisabled students and students with physical or learning disabilities
  • Students whose parents have earned a college degree and students whose parents have not earned a college degree (these students are often called first-generation if they decide to enroll in college)
  • American students and students from other countries

A growing body of educational research is devoted to studying the underlying causes of achievement gaps and the strategies educators are employing to address them. Yet the causes are often so complex and overlapping that it is nearly impossible to determine all the factors that may give rise to particular achievement gaps or contribute to their persistence. The following list, however, is a representative selection of a few underlying causes identified by educators and researchers:

  • Poverty, income inequality, and lower socioeconomic status contributing to reduced access to educational opportunities, familial support, good nutrition, healthcare, and other factors that tend contribute to stronger educational achievement.
  • Minority status giving rise to racism, prejudice, stereotyping, ethnic bias, and institutionalized predispositions—such as the tendency in schools to lower academic expectations for minorities or enroll them in less-challenging courses—that may negatively affect educational achievement. For a related discussion, see stereotype threat.
  • Lower-quality schools, ineffective teaching, student overcrowding, dilapidated school facilities, and inferior educational resources, programs, and opportunities in economically disadvantaged schools and communities.
  • The disproportionate representation of minority and lower-income students in the lowest-achieving schools, lower-level academic classes, and courses taught by the least experienced or effective teachers.
  • Parent and family factors such as low educational attainment, unemployment, or familial instability contributing to reduced academic motivation, disrupted education, or lower educational and career aspirations.
  • Little or no English-language understanding, fluency, or literacy contributing to educational underperformance, decreased academic motivation, or higher dropout rates.
  • Flawed testing and assessment designs that may inadvertently skew scores for certain groups of students over others, such as computer-based tests administered to students with low technological literacy or tests that are written with a “cultural bias” and use terms, concepts, and situations that may be less understandable to certain groups of students, such as urban minorities or the children of immigrant families. For a more detailed discussion, see test bias.
  • The structure of the American system of public schooling and teacher preparation contributing to lower academic performance in comparison to some higher-performing education systems in other developed countries. In this case, a few internationally administered tests and studies—particularly the Programme for International Student Assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—provide the comparative performance data used to determine international achievement gaps.


In the education community, “closing” achievement gaps is widely considered to be one of the major challenges facing the American public-education system. It is also tends to be one of the top priorities identified by educators, policy makers, elected officials, and others working to improve the education system and individual schools. The achievement-gap issue is closely related to the concept of equity—fairness in education, equal access to learning opportunities, and greater equality in educational achievement, attainment, and benefits.

The growing use of education data by schools, government agencies, and the media, as well as the increasing sophistication of the technologies used to track information related to the academic achievement and educational attainment of students, have exposed achievement gaps that may have been unidentified, overlooked, or ignored in past decades. This exposure has not only raised awareness about the existence of achievement gaps, but it has contributed to increased scrutiny of student achievement—specifically, the achievement of students on the lower end of an achievement gap—and growing calls to address the problem. For example, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—commonly known as the No Child Left Behind Act—requires schools and states to collect and report student-achievement data for multiple student subgroups (among many other provisions). While the controversial legislation is the object of ongoing national debate, one stated intent is to identify, address, and ultimately eliminate achievement gaps. Many other federal, state, and institutional policies—such as universal access to free public preschools or affirmative action in postsecondary admission decisions—represent additional efforts intended to address achievement gaps.

At the district and school level, administrators and teachers may employ a wide variety of strategies to reduce or eliminate achievement gaps. In fact, it could be argued that most education-reform strategies are either directly or indirectly intended to address achievement gaps, given that calls for “reform” typically result from perceived underperformance and a desire to improve the educational achievement of low-performing students. It should be noted, however, that despite the dramatically increased attention to achievement gaps in American public education, and decades of well-intentioned reform efforts by educators and policy makers, achievement gaps have not only persisted, but progress has been modest at best (and in some cases achievement gaps have actually widened).

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