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What Do We Know about the Achievement Gap? - Previous Revision

What do we know about the achievement gap?

What current research tells us about the educational achievement gap in American education.
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1) The Achievement Gap persists.
  • Vanneman, A., Hamilton, L., Baldwin Anderson, J., and Rahman, T. (2009). Achievement Gaps: How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, (NCES 2009-455). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

    This report uses results from the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment to examine Black-White achievement gaps, and changes in those gaps, at the national and state level. The data suggests that while reading achievement has improved for black and white students, white students scored better than black students at all levels.

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  • Applebee, A. N., & Langer, J. A. (2006). The state of writing instruction in America’s schools: What existing data tell us. Albany, NY: Center on English Learning & Achievement University at SUNY, Albany. Retrieved June 20, 2007, from

    This study analyzes writing data from the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment and finds that gaps between advantaged and less advantaged students have remained largely unchanged since 1978.

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2) Quality early childhood education and family involvement may help decrease the achievement gap.
  • Dearing, E., Kreider, H., Simkins, S., & Weiss, H. B. (2006). Family involvement in school and low-income children’s literacy: Longitudinal associations between and within families. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(4), 653-664.

    This study finds that high family involvement can help decrease the achievement gap for low-income students and recommends that family involvement in schools should be a policy priority.

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  • Chatterji, M. (2006). Reading achievement gaps, correlates, and moderators of early reading achievement: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) kindergarten to first grade sample. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(3), 489-507.

    This study finds significant achievement gaps for kindergarten and first grade African-American children, boys, and children from high-poverty households. The authors note the strong positive influence of home and preschool preparation in reading.

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3) Out-of-school programs -- including summer programs -- can help literacy achievement for at-risk students.
  • Lauer, P. A., Akiba, M., Wilkerson, S. B., Apthorp, H. S., Snow, D., & Martin-Glenn, M. L. (2006). Out-of-school-time programs: A meta-analysis of effects for at-risk students. Review of Educational Research, 76(2), 275-313.

    This article reviews 35 Out-of-School-Time (OST) programs for students with difficulties in reading. The authors conclude that OST programs have positive effects on students’ achievement on reading.

     |  Click to Read Abstract  |  Preview/Access Online  |

  • McCoach, D. B., O’Connell, A. A., Reis, S. M., & Levitt, H. A. (2006).Growing readers: A hierarchical linear model of children’s reading growth during the first 2 years of school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 14-28.

    This study suggests that the achievement gap among early elementary school students is largely due to differences in reading skills at kindergarten entry, combined with the decline of reading skills during non-instructional periods such as summer.

    Click to Read Abstract  |  Preview/Access Online  |

4. Culturally supportive practices are necessary for reducing the achievement gap. 
  • Cleary, L. M. (2008). The imperative of literacy motivation when Native children are being left behind. Journal of American Indian Education, 47(1), 96-117.

    This study provides an analysis of Alaskan Native, First Nations, and American Indian students’ motivation to obtain NCLB-based literacy practices.  Findings show that students require intrinsic motivation for literacy learning that is consistent with their own lived experiences.

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  • Phillips, G., McNaughton, S., & MacDonald, S. (2004). Managing the mismatch: Enhancing early literacy progress for children with diverse language and cultural identities in mainstream urban schools in New Zealand. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 309-323.

    This study concludes that achievement gaps can be reduced – and sometimes even eradicated – when addressed early on with culturally supportive practices.

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5. The achievement gap can be decreased in individual schools via strong leadership, support for teachers, and a long-term, research-based approach to the specific school’s needs.

  • Taylor, B. M., Pearson, P. D., Peterson, D. S., & Rodriguez, M. C. (2005). The CIERA school change framework: An evidence-based approach to professional development and school reading improvement. Reading Research Quarterly, 40, 40-69.

    This study concludes that  school-based reform in 13 high-poverty schools. The authors conclude that successful school reform is focused and long-term, connected to site needs, research based, and supported by strong leadership.

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  • Gehsmann, K. M., & Woodside-Jiron, H. (2005). Becoming more effective in the age of accountability: A high-poverty school narrows the literacy achievement gap. In B. Maloch, J. V. Hoffman, D. L. Schallert, C. M. Fairbanks, & J. Worthy (Eds.), The 54th yearbook of the national reading conference (pp. 182-197). Oak Creek, WI: The National Reading Conference.

    This study describes how a high-poverty school narrowed the achievement gap and moved off the under-performing list. Findings indicate that change requires a district commitment to stability in staffing, high-quality professional development, and attention to the challenging facing parents and children.

    | Click to Read Abstract  |  Preview/Access Online  |
  • Atchinstein, B., Ogawa, R. T., & Speiglman, A. (2004). Are we creating separate and unequal tracks of teachers? The effects of state policy, local conditions, and teacher characteristics on new teacher socialization. American Educational Research Journal, 41, 557-603.

    This study finds that a tracking system governs the placement of new literacy teachers, which reproduces inequities contributing the literacy achievement gap.

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Vanneman et al (2009) Abstract:

“Achievement Gaps: How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)” provides detailed information on the size of the achievement gaps between Black and White students at both the national and state level and how those achievement gaps have changed over time. Most of the data in this report is derived from the results of the 2007 main NAEP assessments, and is supplemented with data from the long-term trend assessments.”

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Applebee (2006) Abstract:

“Based on analysis of NAEP writing data, this study finds that writing quality from 1978 to 2002 has remained relatively stable, as well as gaps between advantaged versus less advantaged students; that despite an increased emphasis on writing instruction, particularly for less-able students, students do little lengthy writing across the curriculum, with 40% of 12th graders reporting no writing over three pages; that increased use of high-stakes tests has shifted attention away from class time devoted to open-ended writing; that longer writing results in higher writing achievement; that writing involving analysis and interpretation as opposed to summary and story writing is related to writing achievement; that few family members review students’ writing; that learning to employ prewriting activities is associated positively with writing achievement; and that in more recent NAEP assessments, more students are employing prewriting.”

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Dearing et al (2006) Abstract:

Examines longitudinal data for 281 students from ethnically diverse, low-income households from kindergarten to 5th grade. Uses growth modeling to project individual growth curves for students, and examines patterns of literacy growth related to family involvement. Finds that both between-families differences and within-families changes in school involvement are associated with literacy learning, with high family involvement negating the achievement gap evident for other low-income students. Recommends that family involvement in schools should be a primary goal of educators and policy makers looking to decrease the achievement gap.

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Chatterji (2006) Abstract:

Examines reading achievement gaps for a subset of 2,296 students in the kindergarten to first grade cohort of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS). Uses hierarchical linear modeling to investigate child- and school-level correlates to achievement. Finds significant achievement gaps for African-American children, boys, and children from high-poverty households. Small differences at the beginning of kindergarten became more pronounced as formal schooling took hold in first grade. Notes the strong positive influence of prior preparation in reading, bolstering the importance of high-quality home and literacy preschool experiences for children. Details numerous expected or surprising correlates and moderators of reading achievement gaps that may inform classroom and school practices, as well as policy decisions, for supporting the reading success of all students.

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Lauer et al (2006) Abstract:

Reviews Out-of-School-Time (OST) programs for students with difficulties in reading or math in grades K–12. Analyzes 35 OST studies that met specific criteria, such as having control or comparison groups, occurring after 1985, and including a direct assessment of students’ academic achievement. Finds small but statistically significant positive effects on achievement in reading and math across the board, with larger positive effect sizes for programs with specific features. Finds 1) that OST programs can have positive effects on reading and mathematics achievement, 2) that timeframes do not influence their effectiveness, 3) that students in both elementary and secondary grades can profit from programs for improved reading, 4) that programs can go beyond academic activities to have positive effects on student achievement, 5) that implementation should be monitored so that time is appropriately allocated for specific activities, and 6) that one-on-one tutoring in reading has positive effects on achievement. Suggests that future studies systematically document the characteristics of OST programs and their implementation.

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McCoach et al (2006) Abstract:  

Examines longitudinal data collected at four points in time across the kindergarten and first grade years as part of a large national study of more than 8,000 students. Attempts to understand the relative importance of various individual and school-level factors on reading achievement at the end of 1st grade. Uses a three-level (time-student-growth) model to characterize students’ growth during the first two years of school. Finds that student-level variables such as socioeconomic status (SES), race, and mother’s age at her first birth were best able to explain differences in initial status at kindergarten entry. SES also predicted summer reading growth. Suggests that the achievement gap is in major part due to differences in reading skills at kindergarten entry, combined with the decline of reading skills during non-instructional periods such as summer.

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Cleary (2008) Abstract:

Analyzes the perceptions of 120 First Nations, American Indian, and Alaska Native students on their motivation to acquire literacy practices shaped by No Child Left Behind. Finds that students need intrinsic motivation for learning literacy consistent with their own curiosities, need for self-expression and identity construction, participation in authentic literacy events, display of competence, and links to lived-world issues. However, given NCLB mandates, teachers often ignore these students’ need for intrinsic motivation, leading to students’ sense of alienation from the school world.

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Phillips et al (2004) Abstract:

Examines the effects of a 20-week intervention program for five-year-old new-entrant students from Maori and Pacific-Island cultural backgrounds in New Zealand, using older students in the same classrooms as the comparison group. The intervention involved focused instructional dialogue between the student and teacher when misunderstandings occurred in structured beginning reading and writing tasks. Finds that intervention children had significantly higher scores on all literacy and language measures. Also finds a dramatic reduction of “risk” for literacy-instruction failure in the intervention group. Concludes that achievement gaps are neither necessary nor immutable when addressed early on with culturally supportive practices.

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Taylor et al (2005) Abstract:

Investigates the effects of a school-based reform effort over two years in 13 high-poverty schools. Components of the framework for change included professional development and school-wide leadership activities aimed at improving reading instruction. Finds higher-level questioning to be positively related to students’ reading growth, while the practice of rote-comprehension skills is negatively related. Also finds that coaching interactions with students have a positive relationship with their writing growth. Evaluates schools as high- or low-reform implementers, and finds that growth in effective teaching techniques as well as student achievement are related to degree of reform implementation. Suggests that successful reform efforts are focused and long-term, connected to site needs, research-based, supported by strong leadership, and characterized by professional perseverance.

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Gehsmann & Woodside-Jiron (2005) Abstract:

Reports the findings of one high-poverty elementary school’s change process as it moved from a rating of under-performing to moving off of this list four years later. Focuses on the critical elements of change required each year in the process, including attention to context, coherence, coaching, and compassion. Findings indicate that change requires a district commitment to stability in the teaching force and staff of the school over multiple years to allow a committed staff to work through multiple years of learning and work on core issues. Coherence also involves a staff commitment to a common literacy framework used to guide literacy teaching, learning, and assessments, and high-quality professional development that spans multiple years. Coaching by professionals and peers was critical to success as well as ongoing observations and feedback from the principal. Attention to understanding the challenges facing parents and their children in this context and developing compassion for these individuals was also key to the school’s success.

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Atchinstein et al (2004) Abstract:

Explores an unexpected finding from a larger study examining the effects of district and school organization on teacher induction. Uses a mixed-methods design to study the influence of state policy, local conditions, and teachers’ beliefs and practices on their socialization into literacy teaching practices. Finds a “multilayered system” that appears to result in the tracking of new teachers. Suggests that this tracking reproduces inequities contributing to the achievement gap in literacy.

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