Don't call it an achievement gap

Kentucky has been called out by the federal government for our widening racial gaps in student performance. Former U.S. Education Secretary John King stated that the lower test scores of low income and minority students in Kentucky “remain a substantial challenge.” A challenge that needs to be addressed by local and state officials as a serious and pressing issue.

The issue that Secretary King referenced is more commonly known as the “Achievement Gap,” the persistent and significant gap in performance (measured by test scores) between groups of students, specifically groups defined by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, English language learners, special needs, and gender. This is not a problem unique to Kentucky; more accurately, it is an issue that has plagued the American public education system since its inception.

To put the gravity of the issue in perspective, one can just look at the gap between white and black elementary student performance on reading tests.

In Kentucky, 58 percent of white elementary students perform at the proficient or distinguished level, compared to 33 percent of black elementary students. Gaps like this are replicated across almost all subjects and all grade levels. Minority and low-income students consistently score significantly lower than their counterparts on standardized tests.

So what is going on?

The academic achievement gap cannot be chalked up solely to a function of culture, race, or wealth; instead, it is the manifestation of a complex and diverse set of disadvantages that some students face. This is why many now prefer to refer to this phenomenon as an “Opportunity Gap,” which shifts the part of the burden of performance from individual students to the system as a whole.

Reframing the gap as one of opportunity instead of achievement reflects the reality that many minority and low-income students are repeatedly and systematically deprived of the opportunities that their counterparts are handed both in and out of school.

Students from low-income areas are often districted to less-funded schools that often offer smaller selections of classes, fewer extracurricular activities, and less-trained teachers. Many students of color and low-income students are born into families that cannot afford or do not have access to quality early education programs, which sets them behind from the beginning. Low-income and minority students frequently do not have the transportation or the funds to participate in many of the formative opportunities that encourage school performance and persistence in education. Additionally, many low-income students struggle with mental health issues that schools do not have the resources to adequately address. These are just a few of the disadvantages that low-income and minority students face in disproportionate numbers.

While the achievement/opportunity gap is often referenced solely in relation to evaluating performance on standardized tests, the impact of these disparities can reach past the education system and continue to affect these students for the rest of their lives. Just as issues within the education system can add up, the lack of access to quality education during childhood can be the first disadvantage that later leads to much larger issues such as lower paying jobs, poor healthcare, and lack of safe, quality housing. Ultimately, this gap can continue the cycle of poverty for students.

Although many may try to find one, there will be no single panacea for disparate test scores and unequal education; instead, there needs to be widespread action to address all that affect these disparities. That means everything from school funding to class size to early education programs to transportation, school and parent communication, addressing of mental health issues, and teacher preparation programs.

Kentucky will have more success when each and every student has access to a quality and equitable education. That is why it is in our state’s interest to intervene on these students’ behalf, to make sure that every one of them exits the education system prepared to take on the next challenge.


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Students something somethings...

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