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The achievement gap: Is your school helping all students succeed?

Is your school equitably serving its students? Successful schools have found fair, effective ways to raise the performance of all.

By GreatSchools Staff

Many diverse schools experience an achievement gap, meaning that some groups of students achieve at a much higher level than other groups, especially on standardized tests. It is common to see persistent patterns of underachievement for lower-income, African American, and Hispanic students on standardized test scores. More and more, standardized tests are serving as gatekeepers to a child's academic future. As a result, schools are being asked to close this gap and to help all children reach high standards.

If your school, or the school you are considering for your child, has disparities in outcomes between groups of students, you should look into why this gap exists and what measures the school is taking to close the gap. Schools should strive to create an environment where all children feel valued and all children are learning to high standards. To find out if your school is working to close the achievement gap, schedule a school visit to meet with the principal and observe some classes.

Meeting with the principal: Questions to ask about equity

Here are some questions to ask the principal that will help you assess the school's commitment to helping all children reach high standards:

Ask: How are students achieving in the school now? Are there any groups of students that are scoring below others on standardized tests? If so, what is the school doing to address this challenge?

Listen for: Exact achievement data for each group of students in the school; specific strategies the school is using (curricular programs, interventions, etc.) to raise the achievement of low-performing students; and concrete, measurable school goals for improving test scores.

Ask: How do the teachers hold all children to high expectations and measure progress to ensure that all students are learning?

Listen for: Concrete examples of assessments that teachers use to gauge student learning and ways that teachers analyze this assessment data to make sure all students are on track.

Ask: How is the school working to close the achievement gap? Are teachers using any new curriculum or instruction? Are they offering extra academic support for students?

Listen for: Specific actions the school is taking to raise achievement for low-performing students. Potential actions include: Implementing new teaching strategies that have been proven successful in other schools and providing additional academic support for students, during the school day and after school. Ask how many children take advantage of these resources and how parents are notified about this extra help.

Ask: Do all students have equal access to the most challenging classes or are lower-achieving students grouped in remedial programs?

Listen for: Evidence that all students have access to high-level courses and enriched curriculum and the school discourages permanent "ability grouping" and remedial programs. If you're not sure, ask to see the demographics of the students in accelerated courses vs. remedial courses.

Walking around the school: Looking for signs of equity

Take a walk around the school, visiting classrooms and observing the surroundings. As you walk, keep an eye out for some of the following signs that this school is striving to be equitable for all students:

  • Teachers using a variety of instructional strategies, including cooperative learning (students working in groups) and directed lessons to meet the learning needs of the students. Watch to see if students look engaged in the lessons and if the purpose of the lesson is clear.
  • Artwork and decorations, both in the hallways and in classrooms, that value and affirm the culture, language and backgrounds of the students.
  • Evidence that the school makes an effort to communicate with parents through their home language and encourages parents of all ethnic and cultural groups to participate in the school.
  • Accommodations for students with physical handicaps to access all parts of the school.

It may take years for a school to reverse historical trends of underachievement and inequity. The key is to look and listen for evidence that the school is aware of its challenges and is working actively to raise the achievement of all students.

Comments from readers

"I see nothing wrong with ability grouping. It allows the the advanced students to move forward and those who need support get instruction at their level. Every child should be taught at their instructional level, so that every one learns without hesitation or frustration. "
"I went down to get my son set up for help because he is disabled and I tried to get his testing started and they refused to give me the schools stats and are not willing to get all of his records from his old school for the testing that they did. "
"Does Money Matter. YES! YES! "
"Why is it the school's responsibility to close the gap, when the parents of these children are not doing things like teaching them English at home? My concern is not what the school is not doing for these children, but what the school is taking away from the other groups in order to compensate for what the parents aren't doing for their own children. I have to work with my children at home more because the school is over burdened with a non English speaking population which is resulting in the school allocating more resources for that group at the expense of other groups. We lost our assistant in my son's class this year, yet they are hiring one for the non English speaking class. "
"I once went to Chisholm Trail. Such a great school itself."
"It's the time for pepole to think about why? Why people desperate sending their kids to private school even thought they have to cut the food on their table? Not all the monrity people will fall into low income. Why some of the monity people will archive while some can't? Think about it! In a country where no warefare avilable for low income population, poverty will bacome the most powerful motivation for kids to learn in order to change their status. I guess not here. No one can blame the socity for themselves for not archive in their life. American is still the most fairness country in the world. If you don't believe, please go to other countries to visit ( except Europe.) Of course parents should be responsible to the behavial of their kids. Please don not blame any other people or school. For parents can't afford to pay the tutoring, I suggest them to learn by themselves first in adult school then teach their kids. It should work for middle school kids at least."
"The achievement gap is the natural result of differences in intelligence. The only possible way to reduce the gap is to limit the most intelligent students' opportunities. No student benefits from that."
"I feel like most ethical groups in school are so distracted by nonsense things that teacher's bother them about. The petty issues are really issue about a child's being and operating in the age and stage that they are in during their life at the time. Teachers do not want to except the theory of child development. They teach from 'BOTH SIDES OF THEIR MOUTH'. THEY KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON BUT THEY CALL IT 'INTOLERABLE BEHAVIOR'.It is hard to believe that in 2010 people are still being 'HUNG UP ON THE COLOR OF SOMEONES SKIN' 'WOW'. Why can't you just help the CHILDREN'S OF THE WORLD?"
"This writer essentially wants to narrow the achievement gap by limiting opportunities for the brightest students. For example, if you fill accelerated classes with slow students, the classes aren't accelerated any more. Which is exactly what this writer wants, as it forces everyone to plod along at the same, slow pace."
"Through physical knowledge i know that a certain school falsity's it records by showing a higher score then actual accounts. There is a large gap between Hispanics and White students. Most of which is due to the lack of incentive to learn.Most are their just to be there and don't care to learn. They are in an environment that only most teenagers fall into and that is having fun. You have a split between the higher income families and the poor. Just like the schools 'Distinguishing School Award' which is so corrupted by false scores. "
"This is all good information, however, it does not get to the core issue we experience in our community with higher socieconomic families avoiding multi-ethnic schools. If you could write an article demonstrating how ALL kids, including those from HIGHER socieconomic groups, can benefit from experiencing a multi-ethnic education without sacrificing scholastic achievement, it would go a long way toward mitigating the flight of 'involved' parents from schools experiencing these achievement gaps. After all, doesn't the best way to close the gap involve exposing lower achieving kids and their parents to the habits and the abilities of the higher performing kids and parents? Anything you can do reduce the often irrational fears the parents of higher performing students have of multi-ethinic schools would be valuable."
"What about the parents who could care less about their children? What about arrogant students who don't want to be there? Too much 'forgiveness', too many perks to succeed. Teachers and administrators are constantly being cited as the cause. More and more is expected of them, and less from the parent and student. Get real!! Go back to basics, and CONSEQUENCES!!"
"Many low achieving schools have a diverse number of students, but mostly of one race. To accommodate these students, you need a diverse number of teachers. If you try to teach students that are the same heritage of the teachers, that group of students will not learn what is necessary to survive in this world. "
"These are all great questions, but i dont need to ask any of them because my focus is on my child. If more people paid attention to thier children they wouldnt have to ask why is my child not doing well. If you dont know why then sure most blame the school or being poor, I would blame myself! I am my childs master, I am thier teacher for life not just 1 year out of many. As master of thier future I want to say that you are not asking the right questions. Instead of asking how are the schools test scores ask how are my childs scores. STOP concerning yourself with others and pay attention to your own children. Schools are a an ingredient of success - Success is not an ingredint of school. Lets be serious here, Teachers are doing great jobs all across America and they are awesome in Sharon Schools... Its the parents that need to take a bigger role in thier childrens lives then we wouldnt be asking these questions. When it comes to teaching your children Parents > Te! achers... no offense to teachers"
"I think a big problem in our public schools today is discipline. The teachers and administration are not allowed to discipline anymore, and the students know this; therefore, they disrupt classrooms and misbehave because they know they can get away with it. We need to go back to the days when kids feared being sent to the principals office. We need resource officers that lay down the rules and the law to the students and aren't their buddy. Once discipline is defined and upheld then we will see more poistiive results in the classroom."
"Very politically correct. Blame the racist system for any achievement gap that exists. Not everyone is buying it. I would suggest skeptical readers check out 'The Bell Curve' or 'Real Education', both by Charles Murray."
"One major problem that needs addressing and is a major contributor to low income is dyslexia. Schools as a matter of policy do not check for dyslexia believing it is a medical problem. Doctors do not have tests for it, because it is not a medical problem. Insurance will not pay for it, so only those with means even have a remote chance at getting appropriate assistance and given that it is highly hereditary, dyslexic students without intervention generally fail, end up either on assistance or in the lowest paying jobs, and their children do not have a family with means to have the appropriate tests and interventions. Once we've assigned 'lazy' to them, there is little chance of reversing this. Considering the NIH figures that approximately 15% of the population has some degree of dyslexia, that would mean a school with 500 students would generally have 75 diagnosable students. So it seems to me that until admin can start to focus on their true mission (educate children) rath! er than the idea that their mission is to institute policy, many kids (with and without learning differences) will suffer. Policies are meant to be the fence line, not the mission."
"I'm a black woman, been a teacher, left the profession because its stressful with low pay. That said, you will be amazed what a child will do when someone believes in them. Set high standards (relative to the child) and expect them to meet it. We need more black teachers in the classroom. We need educators who can look beyond a social barrier or tough exterior. Many times a child will appear lazy because they don't know how to do something. By not trying they certainly can't be labled stupid. Which would you rather be considered, and underachiever or stupid? Often times they have selected the latter. Sure, there are lazy, tired adults that should have never become parents. Actually, they are part of a lost generation. We need to look beyond them. Some of the best schools in the nation do not have 'homework' but do all the work in class. After all, if you are in school appx 8 hours a day why should you have to come home and do more school work? As a public schoo! l teacher I was given the 'gifted' students - out of 4 classrooms there may have been 5 black students. I was truly amazed by the number of gifted students who had tutors, went to Sylvan, etc. The tutors were often teachers who had the same materials I was using. They would call and ask for my future lessons. Think about that next time socioeconomic factors are considered. By the way, I don't think white people or any other group should apologize for using their resources to better their child's position. But its for society as a whole to consider those who are not in such situations. Since I actually need to earn a living and can't afford to be a teacher, I tutor children free of charge on my spare time. Later in life I hope to return to the profession. "
"I'm truly offended by the accusations made by the 'statistics' of how low-income HISPANIC students score low on standardize test scores. I'm a low-income Hispanic and I'm rank 2 in my class with a 4.34 GPA. My standardize test scores are always in the advanced category and have never been any lower. I'm also concerned why people are so concentrated on the underachievers when teh overachievers are being looked over and hardly ever recognized for their academic success. It makes no sense to me that the people who fail in school get so many opportunities to make up for their mistakes and yet an advanced student is put to the side because the school isn't worried about him/her since they are 'on the right track'. To me it feels like I'm being neglected because no one really understands my true talents and my talents will never be exposed due to the lack of attention I receive at school. There should be a balance between the attention an advanced student gets and the attention an average or below average student gets."
"' underachievement for lower-income ' Wow.. Now our kids are judge by the how their lunch is paid for... HUMMMMM , dose this really work? What is low income those days ? What about all the people that had good paying jobs and when form 60K to 20K a year , IF that! So now their children are in that group? It all sound sad and sick to me. Now I know how my child is judge or label by the schools , our government , and the teachers. I really feel that every mom and/or dad's should spend a day in the classroom with their child or another class if they want to . See for there self what happens every day. I see what happens in the school by the teachers and the kids. Kids do talk and you should listen. I guess I will keep paying for my children lunch. I thought children play name calling games.. 'underachievement for lower-income ' "
"once most of the school children prob from bussing kids in from other areas to make make the school more low income then when a child that doesnt get free lunch, forgets there money... no loan.. just peanutbutter and bread.. and the quality and quanity of the lunch goes down to be able to afford what the government puts out check the lunches at the schools where they bus kids in to make the school qualify for free lunches eat the free lunch and compare "
"I realize that most of your information comes from statistics and reviewing test scores. I am not a teacher nor do I have a degree. But as a concerned parent and grandparent I find that No Child Left Behind was written by someone who is completly out of touch and has not one ounce of common sence. Why do people with degrees think they know what is best and all they do is make a complete mess of things? My children are grown and have children of there own now and I am so glad that there not a part of this system. My son would have been a complete failure in this system and my daughter would have been put on pills. Pills seem to be the answer to everyting in this day and time. That is so sad!!! There is not one bit of diversity in the class rooms. All these kids are thrown in together. Common sense tells you that you can not put advaced students with children that can not keep up. You also can not put disruptive children in the classroom with any of the studens. Who eve! r makes these rules needs to remember that there is only ONE teacher in the room teaching. This article says that certain childrens needs are not meet, well you are wrong, no childs needs are not being met. My information comes from being at the school every day and seeing what goes on. I had to stop going to the school to volunteer because it was to upseting. My grandchildren are not getting the same education my chilren got and it is the same school district. All schools say we need more parental involement. They only want you involved as long as you agree with what they are doing. In other words they hear you they just do not LISTEN!!! Forget about your degrees long enough and let common sense creep in. I could fill the Kentucky Parent/Teacher paper with what is wrong. You need to remember we are trusting the school system with our FUTURE and you are failing. "
"I am a teacher and I also grew up in this community. I would like to say that in my entire school life I did not have a single Hispanic or African American teacher until I went to College. And although many people will argue that we have evolved as a society, I think that it is very important for kids to have role models of their own ethnicity especially in school. It's a sad reality when you look around and the only people who look like you are the custodians and the lunch ladies. What does that tell our kids? Kids need to be exposed to successful people who are of their ethnic background, so that they can feel that they can also succeed. I am currently doing research for my PHD on this very topic and it is very sad to see the ratio of multicultural students to teachers. Does that mean that Caucasians can not teach minorities? Of course not. However, when people like the teacher who posted claim that Black kids are lazy or don't have family support, teach in our schools! , students are bound to fail. As a teacher the most important thing you can teach a child is that you care and that you believe in them. Instead, as this person has shown and I have experienced in my school life, some teachers judge students, and I am sure it's pretty blatantly obvious to them, hence, why do work for you? I hope that if you are a teacher you take the time to reflect on your prejudices and leave those at home or stop teaching. It's a reality whether you like it or not, minorities are growing and some day we will be the majority. So you can either treat us with the same respect and educate us so that our world will be a better place to live or you can continue to be ignorant and watch as our future crumbles because you were too caught up in your own closed minded beliefs to teach all students!"
"In my opinion, if there is a consistant achievement gap, the problem most likely does not originate with the school. The school proves its effectiveness with the groups that are succeeding consistantly. If it were to be the school's fault, all groups would fall short. I think the common denominators for failure lie closer to home, which is personal and sensitive -but not racist."
"A strategy is most effective with those who it is designed for - it in EVERY CHILD's best interest to be in a class with others of similar ability and motivation. Only then can they be helped to progress in a way that is meaningful to *them*. Concrete assessments that teachers might analyze will not measure most of the worthwhile learning in a high school ... and IF 'all students are on track', it is DESPITE having their concrete data analyzed (not ensured by it). Sorry if your motivation is below your claimed 'talent' - most teenagers are (and were, and will always be) like that - it is the *product* of motivation x talent that counts in real life. By The Way, '6/8/09 poster', we can all read here. If you're going to cut-and-paste a rant from somebody else, at LEAST correct the grammar and spelling in it (PhD ? yeah, right.) "
"04/2/2009: 'Wow, I didn't realize how many racist people still exists in US. I have always been an overachiever, was extremely poor growing up and went to public school through high school. The only reason I made all the way to getting a PhD in a top 5 US University in my area of expertise was because I had a couple of teachers back in elementary school that believe in me. Most times, that's all it takes, someone that believes in you. The truth is, most teachers and schools don't care about the education of minorities and the poor, eventhough we can be overachievers and be responsibe and extremely productive members of society. Am I suppose to say sorry your child is being held bacK? May be after you say sorry that minorites are been treated like their nothing and are not been educated to their potential.'"
"Wow, I can not believe the response of a 'teacher' here on this post. It looks like you need further education yourself. This issue is complex. There are several factors involved, race, socio-economics, and politics to name a few. You can not deny the systematic racism that has existed here in the good old USA. There is no way that a people who have been systematically prevented from opportunites like education, will be at the same level as those who have been given priveleges due to economics and race and the real issues surrounding this goes back beyond what we are addressing here in this post. History is to be reviewed to understand the current siutation. It amazes me the support given to refugees and other immigrant groups while black students who have been refugees in this country, are not given the same support. What would you say about a child whose parents were not allowed education, while another child's parents were. Will these two children be on equal playing fields? Will the parents? Well this has happend to a whole race of people for generations. And yes this sytem that has caused this must be accountable. We are one hand and when one finger hurts the whole hand suffers. This government must deal with these issues because it was the American government that created these inequalities. This is what we have inherited. And it is primarily the role of parents but truth is that many teachers do not care and do not expect black kids to achieve. A parent can do all they can but the teacher makes a differnce. We are all in this together. Do research on those schools that do focus on the cultural/racial/social dynamics of the student and see the difference for yourself! Those teachers who are aware of the historical and social issues surrounding black students in education are much more equipped at teaching these students because they are aware and they do care. One example is the education of students from Africa. They have very limited resources yet they are very educated and speak sometimes 3-4 languages. This in my opinion is because they are taught by teachers who love and care for their education! Resources are not enough. Your beliefs about your students count. Teachers need to care about children and who they are, what they have gone through. You are teaching in America, a count! ry with very complex race relations. Look beyond and look at the challenges facing each child. Yes it is tough but you chose the field and if you don't care and you see 'some' students as waiting for handouts, you need to get the hell out of this enviornment because it is teachers like you who contribute to this problem. Go to those children you have a heart for and teach them. Teachers can help or hurt a child and right now we are seeing so many children being additionally hindered due to beliefs like the teacher here. Education and knowledge is beyond mere books and I pray we as humans can spritually advance to see past the physical and deal with each childs whole being."
"I know my son is in grave danger of failing 2 classes, I was really depending on the summer school program to help him. Now with summer school being canceled what in the world should I do to help my son so he can move on to the 8th grade."
"you can call it what you want but the race is a factor. I'm a teacher at a high school and sadly the white kids get alot of support from their parents and the blacks do not. The ones in my classes don't try. They refuse to read and only want to talk and be vulger, and know that they'll still get pushed up to the next grade. The white kids get upset if they get a B. Ask the government why there is such a gap? Could it be because one group thinks everything is owed to them while the other group wants to earn it?"
"The oppurtinuty for acheivment is there and always has been there. The teachers give their best some kids take it some don't. The kids and the parents need to step it up not the school or teachers. the government needs to stop tring to save everyone cause their just making 'some' kids relient on them and not themselves. If you the parent want your child to succed then you be informed with the teacher and know what your child is doing or is not doing. I know my three children will make it because i'm involved every year and don't blame the teachers if they get a bad grade. they will study and make it without free handouts from the gov."
"Would you care to ponder on my responses to your article on 'The Achievement Gap'? You say, 'some groups of students achieve at a much higher level than other groups especially on standardized tests' I say: Do you mean they achieve at a much higher RATE than other groups? Or if you're talking about tests, then do you mean PERFORM or SCORE at a higher level? You say: 'The tests are serving as gatekeepers to a child's academic future' I say: What is an academic future? Do you mean college future as in education or just 'to a child's future? Also, schools are not asked to close the 'gap'. Actually, schools are instructed and required to narrow the gap and to help children reach HIGHER standards or grade-level standards. (not high) It would be pretty difficult for ESL students (who speak some English) to reach high score standards. The Spanish-only speakers, hopefully, take their own tests in Spanish and are rated in their own demographic category which tells me some of these low scores are coming from your English speaking students who score lower than grade-level. You say: A school should strive to create an environment 'where all children are learning to high standards'. (wording is confusing) To analyze data and measure progress for your own resolutions, have you tried the Baldridge Program? I think it's great if it's utilyzed skillfully. 'Accelerated vs. remedial' programs do not have to be two entire separate entities. Both can be incorporated, integrated and blended together in one plan. This is where we get our biased opinions from. Don't all children learn at their own pace within their own learning MODALITIES? The accommodations your school has for students with special needs is, supposedly, super!! It is so good to hear that. The last statement, 'It may take years for a school to reverse....' is so effective and enlightening as is Chamisa Elementary. KUDOS!!! "
"Wow, I didn't realize how many racist people still exists in US. I have always been an overachiever, was extremely poor growing up and went to public school through high school. The only reason I made all the way to getting a PhD in a top 5 US University in my area of expertise was because I had a couple of teachers back in elementary school that believe in me. Most times, that's all it takes, someone that believes in you. The truth is, most teachers and schools don't care about the education of minorities and the poor, eventhough we can be overachievers and be responsibe and extremely productive members of society. Am I suppose to say sorry your child is being held bacK? May be after you say sorry that minorites are been treated like their nothing and are not been educated to their potential."
"Does it not seem just a little unfair to judge a school for this 'achievement gap' especially in 2 areas??? How are students who can barely speak English to be expected to achieve high on tests? And the school/teachers get blamed. Also, I am an involved parent, but the parents of the behavior problem kids and low readers hardly ever go to conferences. I know because I volunteer. Teachers call these parents and they say they will support. Nothing never changes. So much counts on the MEAP but some kids and parents don't care about it because it doesn't affect their grades. "
"I recently graduated from an extremely diverse high school, and I see that a lot of parents feel their children are being 'held back'. I understand how that may feel incredibly frustrating, but look at the larger picture. When in school, I never saw the well-off high-acheiving students being held back, but only the poor low-acheiving students being literally left behind. Teachers were more than ready to help a college bound student, but wouldn't think twice about suspending a potentially smart student who came with a lot of baggage. Of course if your born college bound, you are going to do well in school, but that's not the case for everyone. It's hard to focus on school if your dad is gone, your mom works 2 jobs and can't put food on the table and be involved as well, plus teachers seem to hate you, no one cares, and you barely have enough to eat. I came from a situation somewhat similar to this, and even though I knew I was smarter than most the rich white kids in my class! es, I found it hard to stay motivated, get my work done and get good grades because unlike your children, I had no support. My mom couldn't help me with my homework, I did everything on my own, and it shouldn't have to be this hard. In my neighborhood there are so many bright kids who just don't care because no one wants to reach out to them. This isn't fair. And I'm not saying it's ok to dumbdown curriculum to make kids look smarter, but there has to be a way for teachers and schools to accomodate children who aren't as priveledged as yours. We all are in it together, we go to school together. It's selfish to say your kid deserves to go to college and the kid sitting next to them doesn't, because that kid's parents aren't as good of parents as you. I thought America was a country of equal opportunity, but I guess only as long as you reap the benefits and not when its your turn to pay the cost. That sounds more like a caste-system to me. Of course the system isn't going to! be perfect, but humans aren't perfect, so we have to do what ! we can to accomodate to that. That means sacrifices to you as well as to those on the other side. Don't look at it as 'you can't keep up, I don't want to slow down for you, go get in the welfare line'. Look at it as 'you can't keep up? Here, let me help lift you up'. We're all together, we're all one despite our differences. A country is only as rich as it's poorest, and only as strong as its weakest."