The Achievement Gap: What It Is and How It Affects Your Students

As educators, we always notice gaps and different learning styles among our students, but why is this? Researchers have deemed this “the achievement gap,” which refers to the difference in test scores between different groups of students.

This difference appears and manifests in student course selection, graduation rates, and college attendance. Furthermore, according to most researchers, the root of this gap is associated with three distinct factors: socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. This gap is often most visible when comparing African American and Hispanic students to caucasian students, but it can appear in many different types of students of all statuses.

Cause and effect of the achievement gap

While many factors can contribute to the achievement gap, it is most-commonly linked to poverty. Students living below the poverty line face far greater risk factors for failing a class or dropping out of high school than their middle-class peers. For instance, according to Eric Jensen in Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do About It, students living in poverty encounter “emotional and social challenges, acute and chronic stressors, cognitive lags and health and safety issues.” In other words, students living in poverty are often more consumed with surviving their current situation and existing rather than learning and the future.

Sometimes, students of a lower socioeconomic status come from single-parent households or are in foster care.  While this is not always the case, Jensen cites that children living under the line “are more likely to come from single-guardian homes, and their parents or caregivers tend to be less emotionally responsive” (Blair et al., 2008). Thinking about the context of a single-parent home versus one with two parents, this research makes sense because one parent has to pull in double income and likely work more hours than a household with two parents, leaving the child alone for more time. Jensen goes on to further cite that households with only a single parent tend to “strain resources and correlates directly with poor school attendance, lower grades, and lower chances of attending college” (Xi & Lal, 2006). This research may seem disheartening, but acknowledging these statistics is the first step in helping students in poverty succeed.

As for the role of the student, Jensen states that “poor children often feel isolated and unloved, feelings that kick off a downward spiral of unhappy life events, including poor academic performance, behavioral problems, dropping out of school or drug abuse” (Jensen, 2009). It is proven that a cycle of poverty tends to occur in families living below the line, so for children it can often be a difficult thing to break free of. While the effects of poverty are not automatic or fixed, they often set in motion a vicious and stubborn cycle of low expectations (Jensen, 2009).

Jensen further reported that three-year-old children from middle-class incomes have a vocabulary of approximately 1100 words, but, in contrast, a parent on welfare will only master around 525 words in their lifetime. The idea that middle-class preschoolers have been exposed to millions more words than their peers growing up in poverty is mind-boggling to say the least. It certainly highlights the different levels of readiness with which our students enter kindergarten and might shed some light on what educators can do to combat this achievement gap.



Attempting to close the gap

In 2001, President George W. Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which allotted federal funds for education accountability. It also focused on closing the achievement gap for these various groups. School districts are now “required to disaggregate student test scores and other performance data” by characteristics like race, gender, and socioeconomic status (Ansell, 2011). The landmark legislation created greater awareness of racial disparities and addressed the rising concern about other kinds of achievement gaps, such as the difference in courses students take in high school. Since 2001, a concerted effort has been made to target interventions for different groups of students, but significant change to the achievement gap still remains to be seen.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show that, over time, African American and Hispanic students have made great strides in improving performance in reading and mathematics, but a breach still separates them from other student groups. Special analyses by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2009 and 2011 showed that these students trailed their peers by an average of more than 20 test-score points on the NAEP math and reading 4th and 8th grade assessments (Ansell 2011). Compared to the average student, this equates to a difference in reading and comprehension of math of about two grade levels. While the scores have been narrowing since the first research in 1992, these gaps still persist, but there has been slow progress in the right direction. When looking at course choice patterns, credits taken to graduate greatly increased across all racial groups. In fact, African American students “went from taking the least credit-hours in 1990, 23.5, to the most of any student group in 2009, 27.4” and Hispanic students “increased their average credits from 24 to 26.5” (Ansell 2011). While this statistic is a progressive step in the right direction, research also shows that “both white and Asian American students were at least twice as likely to take classes considered academically rigorous in those subjects than black and Hispanic students” (Ansell 2011).  

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Education led another charge to level the playing field for all students. The initiative helped bring attention to racial achievement disparities in relation to enrollment and success in colleges and universities across the country. At the time, of the Americans between the ages of 25 through 34 who earned a college degree, African Americans only accounted for 26 percent, and Hispanics even less at 18 percent (Ansell 2011). Efforts continue to be made to bring awareness to the achievement gap and help those students who are under-performing; however, these efforts concurrently also help those groups who are already successful and attending college at consistent rates. This is a good effect, but it isn’t closing the gap.




Hope and solutions to break the cycle

As educators, how do we fight this uphill battle to close the achievement gap? To this day, it remains a highly researched and often controversial topic to tackle head-on in schools. According to James J. Heckman’s article “The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education,”  early intervention is necessary to offset the economic and social disadvantages that contribute to the achievement gap (Heckman 2011). He also noted that such interventions need to begin earlier than formal schooling if possible because the characteristics that impact this gap occur at or before birth, but that is something the teacher cannot control. Additional research also found that closing the achievement gap was multi-faceted and will only take effect over time. It requires the formation of social policies that provide external family support to ensure students have stable, secure homes and neighborhoods, as well as educational policies that promote cognitive and social development (Ratcliff, et. al., 2016).

While some of these policies are being implemented at a federal level, closing the achievement gap will depend on districts, principals, and even individual teachers taking the initiative to create awareness and break the cycle. Reducing class sizes, expanding early-childhood care and programs, and raising academic standards have all been proposed solutions. However, awareness is key in the classroom. Preschool and elementary teachers can spend some extra time with students who may fall behind because of their home life. Secondary teachers and counselors can encourage their higher-achieving students to tutor others from lower income status or help their low-achieving students take on more challenging courses. There is no simple solution, but as long as policymakers and educators remain actively involved in closing the gap, there is hope it will improve.

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Ansell, Susan. “Achievement Gap.” Education Week, 7 July 2011,

Blair, C., et al. (2008). Maternal and child contributions to cortisol response to emotional arousal in young children from low-income, rural communities. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1095–1109.

Heckman, J. (2011) “The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education.” American Educator, v35 n1, Spring 2011, pp. 31-47.

Jensen, Eric. Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. ASCD, 2010.

Lee, Jung-Sook, and Natasha K. Bowen. “Parent Involvement, Cultural Capital, and the Achievement Gap Among Elementary School Children.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 43, no. 2, 2006, pp. 193–218.

Ratcliff, Nancy J., et al. “Causes of and Solutions to the Achievement Gap: Teachers' Perceptions.” Teacher Educators' Journal, vol. 9, 2016, pp. 97–111.

Pam Gothart is the director of professional learning at Social Studies School Service. She has been in education for 22 years including teaching high school social studies, and spent 12 years as a history director. Pam’s Ed.S. is from Samford University, where she focused her study on professional learning. She is passionate about education and helping teachers to be unique and effective leaders.