The Persistent Achievement Gaps in American Education

BY MAI MIKSIC |  American public education aspires to provide rich and poor, Black and White, immigrant and native-born, with equal opportunities for success. That it fails in this aim is evidenced in the persistent differences in academic performance between groups of students, also known as achievement gaps. Achievement gaps are often measured using standardized tests, but can also be measured using high school completion rates, early childhood and college readiness measures, and college completion rates. Achievement gaps appear as early as three years of age (Burchinal et al., 2011), grow as children progress through school (Fryer & Levitt, 2004), and continue well into the later school years, posing serious consequences for students’ overall educational attainment and long term economic prosperity (McKinsey & Company, 2009; Olneck, 2005). Research has contributed to a better understanding of its nature and causes, but there is a lot we still don’t know.

What do the achievement gaps look like?

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) is our chief source of information about achievement gap patterns. Administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, the NAEP measures student test performance in a number of subjects, most notably math and reading. The NAEP allows for comparison of student test performance across states and urban districts, and it tracks trend lines. The NAEP is given to a sample of students and does not report findings for individuals or schools.

The first NAEP assessments, from the early 1970s, documented a substantial gap in test performance in reading and math between Black students and White students. Since then, this achievement gap has appeared to be fluid, narrowing in the 1970s and 1980s but flattening and even increasing (in math) in the 1990s, narrowing slightly again and, finally, flattening since 2004 (Barton & Coley, 2010). Black students on average score below White students by one standard deviation, which amounts to the difference between the performance of a 4th grader and an 8th grader.

The income achievement gap, defined as the gap between children who come from low-socioeconomic status (SES) families and high-SES families, is even worse than that between Black and White students; in fact, it is now twice that size (Reardon, 2011). The Latino-White achievement gap, which the NAEP began tracking in the 1990s on, shows Latinos and White both improving but at the same rate – thus, the actual gap has remained unchanged (Hemphill & Vanneman, 2010).

How do the achievement gaps manifest in New York City? A recent report from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools showed steady improvements in student outcomes across all groups between 1990 and 2011 (Kemple, 2013). Graduation rates improved faster for Blacks, Latinos, students eligible for free or reduced lunch, English Language Learners (ELL), and students in special education than for whites and Asians. Nevertheless, Blacks and Latinos still earned significantly fewer regents diplomas (48%) compared to Whites and Asians (75%). Additionally, the percentages of Black and Latino males who graduated from high school prepared for college-level work were 8% and 11%, compared to 48% and 40% for Asian and White males.

Another study (Brennan, 2013) used data from the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) to paint a comparative picture of how New York City (NYC) schools are doing vis-a-vis their urban peers. Between 2003 and 2011, NYC made small progress in their NAEP TUDA scores, but other cities such as Boston and Houston made even bigger gains. For example, in 8th grade math NYC improved scores between 2003 and 2011 by 6 percentage points, but Boston and Houston increased their scores by 20 percentage points. In fact, NYC had the slowest rate of change in math scores compared to five other major cities. More importantly, the report showed that little progress has been made in terms of closing the achievement gap between Whites, Blacks and Latinos in NYC. While there were small gains made in narrowing the Black-White and Hispanic-White achievement gap, these changes were not statistically significant. In other words, the narrowing of the achievement gaps by those small percentages were not enough to matter.

What are the possible causes of the achievement gaps?

Scholars have identified and investigated factors that may perpetuate the achievement gaps, including:

  • Demographic changes in the structure of the family, such as the increasing number of households led by single mothers and the absences of fathers
  • Differences in school quality
  • Differences in school resources
  • Differences in families’ social and cultural capital
  • Increasing economic inequality in America
  • Varying educational attainment of parents
  • Teacher expectations and treatment of students of color
  • Varying academic standards in schools
  • Variation in levels of community infrastructure

The problem is that research on causation is inconclusive. In particular, research on school effects can be contradictory. Fryer and Levitt (2004) examined whether school quality could explain the widening of the Black-White achievement gap as children progress through school. When analyses of students who attended the same school were done, the achievement gap decreased but still remained, indicating that there were other factors that could explain the gap. The opposite result was found by Hanushek and Rivkin (2006), who determined that the achievement gap was largely seen between schools rather than within. Thus it is unclear whether or not school quality does indeed affect the achievement gap. School resources may also affect the achievement gaps. Hanushek (1997) found that school resources seemed to have little effect on student performance. However, a meta-analysis by Greenwald, Hedges, and Laine (1996) found the opposite effect, that school resources are positively related to student performance.

Fryer and Levitt (2004) looked at whether the role of the parent and environmental factors get more important as students progress through school. Since Black students are more likely to come from less favorable backgrounds, the increasing importance of the role of parent and environmental factors could explain the widening of the Black-White achievement gap. However, the authors found that parental and environmental factors mattered less as children made their way through school, suggesting that other school factors may indeed be key to understanding the gap.

The rise in income inequality could also explain the income achievement gap. However, when Reardon (2011) explored this possible cause, he found that increases in income inequality does not completely explain the increase in the achievement gaps over time. Rather, the association between income and achievement has increased substantially over time, indicating that family income matters more for academic achievement now than it has in the past. Reardon (2011) also found that parent education attainment is a much more powerful predictor of student achievement than income, indicating the important role parents can play in closing the achievement gap. Yet the influence of parent educational attainment has remained steady over the years, suggesting that it is not the driving force behind changes in the achievement gap.

What could help close the achievement gap?

Just as there are numerous factors that could influence the achievement gaps, so, too, have there been numerous interventions put forth to close them. School- and community-wide reforms include:

  • Smaller class sizes
  • Increasing access to charter and religious schools
  • Increasing academic rigor
  • Government support systems such as Head Start
  • Community inclusion programs such as the Harlem Children’s Zone
  • Programs that build academic identity and social capital for underachieving youths

Researchers disagree about which interventions work best, but we have still learned a lot about possible ways to close the achievement gaps. One study found that when Black students attend schools with smaller class sizes, not only do their scores on standardized tests improve but they are more likely to take the ACT and SAT college entrance exam and score better on the exams (Krueger & Whitmore, 2001). Yet Konstantopoulos (2008) and Nye, Hedges, and Konstantopoulos (2002) found little support for the idea that smaller class sizes would benefit low-achievers.

Enrollment in charter schools can close the achievement gaps in certain circumstances and in certain subjects. A study done by Mathematica Policy Research (2010) showed that while charter middle schools were not more effective than traditional public schools in general, charter schools seemed effective at increasing the math scores for low-income and low-achieving students. A more recent study (Center for Research on Education Outcomes [CREDO], 2013) found similar results, showing that children in poverty and Hispanic ELL students seem to do slightly better in charter schools than their White and Asian counterparts.

A careful study of the of Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) charter schools indicates that they closed the gaps substantially (Dobbie & Fryer 2011). Dobbie and Fryer (2011) found that the effects of attending the HCZ’s Promise Academy charter middle school were enough to close the Black-White achievement gap completely in math and reduce the gap in English language arts in half. Other studies indicate that religious schools also do a good job of closing the achievement gap (Jeynes, 2007; Jeynes & Beuttler, 2012).

More rigorous curriculums could close the achievement gaps as well. The Chicago Consortium of Schools’ qualitative and quantitative analysis of International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in inner city Chicago indicates that low-SES, minority, immigrant students who went through the program attended more selective colleges, and persisted in college, far above their peers in non-IB classrooms or even in AP classes (Coca et al., 2012).

Head Start, in contrast, does not seem to produce lasting benefits except in limited circumstances  (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, January 2010). For example, subgroup analyses revealed favorable impacts in cognitive, social-emotional, or health domains through 1st grade for children who were dual language learners and children with lower cognitive skills.


Whatever its causes, the achievement gaps remain a thorn in the side of American democratic education, and governments and philanthropies are making substantial investments in programs they hope will make a difference. New York City is no exception. In 2011, the City launched a multi-agency attack on the achievement gap between Black and Latino male youths and their White counterparts. The Department of Education’s Expanding the Success Initiative (ESI) embodies its efforts within 40 high schools across the city. The initiative provides funding and technical support, such as professional development, data, and an online forum with an aim at helping improve college and career readiness among Black and Latino male students.

On March 26th, the CUNY Institute for Education Policy is hosting a discussion on ESI’s early implementation. Please join us on March 26th as we explore ESI’s early implementation.


Mai Youa Miksic is the Equity Research Fellow at the CUNY Institute for Education Policy. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studies social welfare and education policy. Her current research focuses on early childhood education, specifically the effects of parent involvement and Head Start interventions.




Barton, P. E., & Coley, R. J. (2010). The black-white achievement gap: When progress stopped. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service [ETS].

Brennan, J. F. (2013). New York City student achievement on national tests during mayoral control: A comparative perspective 2003 to 2011. Albany, NY.

Burchinal, M., McCartney, K., Steinberg, L., Crosnoe, R., Friedman, S. L., McLoyd, V., & Pianta, R. (2011). Examining the Black–White Achievement gap among low-income children using the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Child Development, 82(5), 1404-1420.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes [CREDO]. (2013). National charter school study. Stanford, CA: CREDO.

Coca, V., Johnson, D., Kelley-Kemple, T., Roderick, M., Moeller, E., Williams, N., & Moragne, K. (2012). Working to my potential: The postsecondary experiences of CPS students in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Dobbie, W., & Fryer, R. G. (2011). Are high-quality schools enough to increase achievement among the poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 3(3), 158-187.

Fryer, R. G., & Levitt, S. D. (2004). Understanding the black-white test score gap in the first two years of school. Review of Economics and Statistics, 86(2), 447-464.

Gleason, P., Clark, M., Tuttle, C. C., Dwoyer, E., & Silverberg, M. (2010). The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts: Final Report. NCEE 2010-4029. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Greenwald, R., Hedges, L. V., & Laine, R. D. (1996). The Effect of School Resources on Student Achievement. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 361-396. doi: 10.3102/00346543066003361

Hanushek, E. A. (1997). Assessing the effects of school resources on student performance: An update. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19(2), 141-164.

Hanushek, E. A., & Rivkin, S. G. (2006). School quality and the black-white achievement gap. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Hemphill, F. C., & Vanneman, A. (2010). Achievement gaps: How Hispanic and White students in public schools perform in mathematics and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Jeynes, W. H. (2007). Religion, Intact Families, and the Achievement Gap. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 3, 1-24.

Jeynes, W. H., & Beuttler, F. (2012). What Private and Public Schools Can Learn From Each Other. Peabody Journal of Education, 87(3), 285-304. doi: 10.1080/0161956x.2012.679538

Kemple, J. J. (2013). The condition of New York City high schools: Examining trends and looking toward the future. New York: The Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

Konstantopoulos, S. (2008). Do small classes reduce the achievement gap between low and high achievers? Evidence from Project STAR. The Elementary School Journal, 108(4), 275-291.

Krueger, A. B., & Whitmore, D. M. (2001). Would smaller classes help close the black-white achievement gap? Princeton, NJ: Industrial Relations Section, Princeton University.

McKinsey & Company. (2009). The economic impact of the achievement gap in America’s schools. Retrieved from

Nye, B., Hedges, L. V., & Konstantopoulos, S. (2002). Do Low-Achieving Students Benefit More from Small Classes? Evidence from the Tennessee Class Size Experiment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(3), 201-217. doi: 10.3102/01623737024003201

Olneck, M. (2005). Economic consequences of the academic achievement gap for African Americans. Marq. L. Rev., 89, 95.

Reardon, S. F. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations. In R. Murnane & G. Duncan (Eds.), Wither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children. New York: Russel Sage Foundation Press.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. (January 2010). Head Start Impact Study: Final report. Washington DC.





Comments on this Post

  1. The data in this article appears to be correct. However, I have a problem with the author’s approach. Although environmental factors were addressed, I could find no mention of non-environmental factors. They also contribute to the achievement gap. If the goal is to close the achievement gap, both environmental and non-environmental factors should be evaluated. This author must be aware that non-environmental factors can contribute to the achievement gap.

    Academic success is correlated with intelligence. (For example, the average physics professor at MIT is going to have a higher IQ than the average kindergarten teacher in Massachusetts.) IQ tests are designed to measure this intelligence. When the article talks about closing the (educational) achievement gap, it means that we need to close the intelligence gap between whites and blacks.

    In the opening sentence of the article, the author makes it clear that non-environmental factors will not be addressed. The sentence states, “American public education aspires to provide rich and poor, Black and White, immigrant and native-born, with equal opportunities for success. That it fails in this aim is evidenced in the persistent differences in academic performance between groups of students, also known as achievement gaps.” The assumption made by the author is that we all (“rich and poor, Black and White, immigrant and native-born”) have equal capability. As most readers must know, this is not true. Of course, these people have different abilities and capabilities. Therefore, there is no reason to expect equal results.

    If our goal is to close the black-white achievement gap, then the most effective approach is to lower the intelligence of whites while raising that of blacks. That is, we would want to raise the IQ of black Americans (85) and lower the IQ of white American (104). Their IQs would meet in the middle at about 94-95. Using non-environment factors to raise the level for blacks would requirement a complete overhaul of our government’s policy of intervention, entitlements etc. Even if this were done, it would take many, many years to complete the process.

    I suspect that most academics do not want to lower the IQ of whites, but instead, want raise the IQ of blacks. This is truly a Herculean task.

    However, rather than attempting to close the achievement gap, a more pragmatic objective is to have a society where poor people have the opportunity of getting out of poverty. It must be oblivious to most readers that spending huge amounts of money on anti-poverty programs will not significantly reduce poverty. To quote Milton Friedman in an interview, “In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about, the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worse off, worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system.”

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