Achievement Gap

A number of reports and studies have explored issues surrounding the education of African American, Latino/a, and other culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students in American school systems. Every CLD group has a different history in the United States. It is widely recognized that the educational experiences of African American students in public schools is rather unique. Specifically, African Americans as a group have been systematically and legally denied the right to an education, and past and ongoing injustices continue to affect the educational achievement of African American students. The most obvious effect is the gap between the academic performances of African American students and their White counterparts. Specifically, myriad reports indicate that Black students often graduate from high school 4 years behind White students in both reading and math. In addition to the gaps in reading and math, there are gaps between White and CLD students in grade point averages, participation in Advanced Placement (AP) classes, gifted education classes, and honors classes, as well as high school graduation rates and college enrollment and graduation rates.

The achievement gap is not a new phenomenon; it has its roots in history. One has only to recall the Supreme Court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson to see that separate but equal was legally acceptable only 100 years ago. And it was less than 6 decades years ago that legislation was passed to desegregate education as a result of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Although efforts to secure equity and excellence in the education of African American students have a relatively short history, there really is no excuse for ongoing inequities in the education of CLD students.

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What Factors Contribute to the Achievement Gap?

There is no single achievement gap; the achievement gap has many faces. These achievement gaps individually and collectively contribute to Black and Latino/a students performing less well than White students relative to grades, test scores, graduation rates, and more. In essence, the omnibus “achievement gap” is a symptom of many other gaps, such as the funding gap, the resource gap, the teacher quality gap, the curriculum gap, the digital gap, the family involvement gap, and the expectations gap.

Essentially, the reasons behind the achievement gap are multifaceted and complex. The achievement gap starts at home, before children begin school, and then widens during the formal school years. For example, at the kindergarten level, there tends to be a 1-year gap between Black and White students; by the 12th grade, there is often a 4-year gap, as already noted. It is counterintuitive that the gap widens while students are in school.

Many factors contribute to the achievement gap(s). Borrowing from the work of Barton of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), this entry explains the primary correlates of the achievement gap and offers recommendation for change. Based on his review of several hundred studies that examined factors contributing to the achievement gap, Barton identified 14 variables that consistently and substantively contribute to the achievement gap. At least two contexts must be thoroughly examined to understand the achievement gap in a comprehensive manner. These two contexts are (1) school and (2) before school and beyond.

School Correlates

Six correlates found in school settings are thought to contribute to the math and reading achievement gaps. These school correlates must be considered in terms of their cumulative impact. For 13 years, students attend school for approximately 180 days each year. Thus, what takes place in school has a major impact on students.

Rigor of Curriculum. Research shows consistently that students’ academic achievement depends extensively upon the rigor of the curriculum; yet, the curriculum tends to be less rigorous for Black and Latino/a students. Instructional rigor rests on teachers’ expectations, as has been learned from research on teacher expectation and student achievement—when expectations are high, teachers challenge students. Rigor can be defined as high-level instruction and access to challenging programs, such as gifted education and AP classes. Black and Latino/a students are less likely than White students (a) to have substantial credits in academic sources at the end of high school and (b) to participate in honors, AP, and gifted education classes. Although Black students represent over 17% of the public school population, they represent only 8% of students participating in gifted education; even fewer are enrolled in AP and honors classes. Publications by the College Board, Education Trust, Educational Testing Service, and other organizations describe more extensively problems regarding lack of access to rigorous instruction, classes, and programs.

Teacher Quality and Preparation. The importance of teacher quality on student achievement cannot be ignored. Black and Latino/a students are more likely to be taught by teachers who are unqualified, including teachers who lack certification, out-of-field teachers, teachers with the fewest credentials, and teachers with the lowest test scores. In high-minority schools, 29% of teachers do not have at least a minor in the subject area in which they teach; in low-minority schools, the percentage is 21, according to Barton’s report. Related to the previous issue of rigor, ill-qualified teachers will have difficulty teaching and challenging students; they are unlikely to raise students’ achievement as they do not have the skills to do so.

Teacher Experience and Attendance. Inexperienced teachers, those with less than 3 years of teaching experience, for example, are more likely to teach in urban than suburban settings. In schools with high percentages of CLD students, 21% of teachers have less than 3 years of experience; in schools with low CLD enrollment, 10% of teachers have less than 3 years of teaching. Further complicating this issue, data indicate that teachers working in high-minority schools often have low attendance rates, resulting in classes being taught by substitute teachers. Again, teacher inexperience and poor attendance hinder the quality of instruction given to, and received by, CLD students, contributing to their poorer school achievement.

Class Size. In schools where there are higher percentages of CLD students, class sizes are larger. For instance, in schools where CLD students represent 75% of the population, average class size is 31. In schools where CLD students constitute less than 10% of the student population, class size averages 22. Larger classes are more difficult to manage; more time is spent on behavior than teaching, resulting in students being denied the opportunity to learn at the same rates as their White classmates in smaller classrooms.

Technology-Assisted Instruction. Schools with higher percentages of CLD students are less likely to have computers in the classrooms, Internet access, and updated, high-quality software; this situation is often referred to as the digital divide. Just as problematic is the issue of how teachers use technology in the classroom; 61% of students in low-minority schools are given assignments to conduct research on the Internet, compared to 35% for students in high-minority schools. As a result, CLD are less qualified to compete in situations where technological skills are essential.

School Safety. Classroom discipline, disruptions, and negative peer pressures (e.g., gangs and fears about being attacked at school) are reported more often by Black and Latino/a students than by other students. Students cannot learn in unsafe, threatening environments. They have difficulty concentrating and staying focused or engaged. Thus, many CLD students may have poor attendance or drop out to avoid the stresses that come with peer pressures, which adds to their poorer performance.

As just described, schools contribute to the achievement gap between CLD students and White students in significant ways. But they are not solely responsible for students’ differential performance, as described next.

Before School and Beyond Correlates

Schools alone did not create the gap, nor can they close it without support from families and the larger community. Eight additional correlates of the achievement gap, based outside of school, must be addressed.

Parent Availability. The extent to which parents are available and spend quality time with their children varies by family structure and composition. A larger percentage of Black and Latino/a students, compared to White students, live in single-parent homes, and many of these are low income. For those living with mothers only, the rates are 17% for White children, compared with 49% for Black children and 25% for Latino/a children. When parental presence is low, students are left to make choices for themselves. This lack of availability results in less structure and discipline for students; they may not spend their unsupervised time studying and/or participating in school-related activities, causing them to fall further behind White students.

Parent Participation. The extent to which caregivers are involved in their children’s education affects students’ achievement and behavior. Reports indicate that Black and Latino/a parents tend to participate less in their children’s education than other parents. Some 44% of urban parents and 20% of suburban parents report feeling unwelcome in schools. Approximately 50% of both Black and Latino/a parents and 75% of White parents attended a school event in 1999; approximately 25% of CLD parents and 50% of White parents volunteered or served on a committee. As with findings regarding lack of parent availability, student achievement suffers.

Student Mobility. There are many negative consequences to changing schools; CLD students, especially those who live in poverty, have the highest rates of changing schools (25% for Latino/a students, 27% for Black students, and 13% for White students). Data from one study indicate that 41% of students who changed schools frequently were below grade level in reading, and 33% were below grade level in math.

Reading to Young Children. Reading positively correlates with language acquisition, literacy development, test scores, and achievement. One longitudinal study spanning 1993 to 2001 found that, among 3- to 5-year-olds, 64% of White preschoolers were read to every day in the preceding week, compared with 48% for Black preschoolers and 42% of Latino/a preschoolers in 2001. The consequences of poor reading skills are serious, with students subsequently performing poorer on intelligence and achievement tests and having difficulty keeping up in other subject areas.

TV Watching. In 2000, 42% of Black, 22% of Latino/a, and 13% of White fourth graders watched 6 hours or more of TV daily. Excessive and unsupervised TV watching negatively affects students’ achievement, with students doing less homework and reading, and participating in fewer after-school activities and intellectually stimulating activities.

Health and Nutrition. Of all households with school-age children, 14% have food issues and 4% report hunger. Black and Latino/a households have 2 to 3 times the food insecurity and hunger of White students. Poor health and hunger are detrimental to achievement, with such students showing less interest, less motivation, and lower concentration; their grades suffer considerably.

Birth Weight. In 2000, more Black infants (13%) were low birth weight compared with White infants (7%) and Latino/a infants (6%). Infants born with low birth weight begin life with disadvantages, many of which do not disappear. A disproportionate percentage of children born low birth weight have long-term disabilities and impaired development, as well as delayed motor and social development. These are more likely to struggle academically.

Lead Poisoning. The primary source of lead poisoning among children is living in old homes covered with lead-based paint. Whereas 6% of White children live in homes constructed before 1946, the percentage increases to 22% of Black children and 4% of Latino/a children. Excessive levels of lead cause reduction in IQ and attention span, increased reading and learning disabilities, and increased behavior problems. Compared to other students, CLD students are at the highest risk of being exposed to lead because a larger percentage lives in older homes.

Despite the data just presented, many of these variables can be improved. If these 14 variables are the most powerful in creating and maintaining the achievement gap, then it behooves counseling professionals to address them in a systemic, comprehensive, and collaborative manner. Families, educators (administrators, teachers, counselors, etc.), community leaders, health professionals, and others must collaborate to tackle this educational tragedy.

Educators must, for example, ensure that CLD students are taught by high-quality teachers and teachers with extensive experience in classrooms.

School personnel and staff must receive formal preparation to work more effectively with CLD students and, thus, to raise their expectations for Black and Latino/a students, as has been proposed by advocates of multicultural and culturally responsive education (e.g., Sonia Nieto, James Banks, Linda Darling-Hammond, Geneva Gay, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Jacqueline Irvine). Furthermore, class sizes and schools must be smaller, and teachers should receive training in culturally responsive classroom management strategies. Educators must adopt and implement programs in their schools to address safety and peer pressure. Conflict resolution programs and anger management programs would be helpful to students.

In terms of homes and communities, families will need access to learning opportunities that educate, empower, and support them in working with schools and their children. Programs addressing family involvement and literacy are two timely topics. Community leaders should collaborate with schools and families to provide students with mentors and role models. Finally, it is essential that schools, families, and businesses collaborate with the social workers and healthcare providers to address problems such as poverty, hunger, health care, and lead poisoning.


  1. Barton, P. (2003). Parsing the achievement gap. Baselines for tracking progress. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
  2. Bridgeman, B., & Wendler, C. (2005). Characteristics of minority students who excel on the SAT and in the classroom. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, Policy Information Center.
  3. Education Trust. (2006). The funding gaps 2006. Washington, DC: Author.
  4. Ford, D.Y. (1996). Reversing underachievement among gifted Black students: Promising practices and programs. New York: Teachers College Press.
  5. U.S. Department of Education. (2006). Secretary’s fifth annual report to Congress on teacher quality. Washington, DC: Author.

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