Achievement gap persists, even among high-performing students, report says

April 2, 2014

African-American, Latino and low-income students who start high school performing near the top of their class fall behind other high-achieving peers by the time they graduate, according to a report released Wednesday that offers a new window on entrenched achievement gaps in high school.

The report from Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust looked at students nationwide who scored in the top 25 percent on math and English tests in their sophomore year. Despite the strong start, the report found that the high-achievers from low-income families, as well as those who were black and Latino, graduated with lower GPAs, posted lower scores on the SAT and ACT, and had lower passage rates on rigorous Advanced Placement exams than high-achieving white students or students from more advantaged backgrounds. High-achieving students of color were also less likely to enroll in selective colleges than their white peers, the report said.

By focusing on the high performers, the report, called “Falling out of the Lead,” offers a different take on educational disparities that exist along racial and socio-economic lines, report authors said. The report is part of an EdTrust series called Shattering Expectations, which focuses on achievement gaps among high-achieving students.

“We’re confronted with educational inequity data all the time, and a lot of people assume we can blame those inequitable outcomes on differences in preparation that students exhibit at the outset,” said report co-author Marni Bromberg, a research associate at Ed Trust, which advocates for education equity. “… We really examine students who arrive at high school already exhibiting academic success. These are the most ready to pursue really advanced and rigorous coursework, and we’re still seeing inequitable outcomes.”

African-American and Latino students pass Advanced Placement exams at lower rates than white students, according to a new report from Education Trust. Scores also varied by students’ socio-economic status (SES). (Click to enlarge) Source: Falling out of the Lead, April 2014 report from EdTrust

The report held “good news and bad,” Bromberg said. For instance, high-achieving students from all racial groups have similar access to advanced coursework at their campuses, she said. However, black, Latino and low-income students are less likely to perform well in those courses than white students.

Additional findings:


The analysis is based on data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, which follows sophomores through high school and into college. The 2002 study is the most recent available that provides longitudinal, nationally representative data on students.

The report did not delve into individual campus differences that could contribute to the variances in student performance, but Bromberg said the findings suggest that students are experiencing different levels of instructional quality and support from teachers and administrators. The report includes interviews with five high-achieving, low-income students throughout the country on their educational experiences in high school. While not a representative sample, the students reported a wide variety in the quality of their courses, the academic support they received from adults in their school, and help in applying for college. “What holds a lot of students back is people tell them ‘No,'” one student told researchers.

The report also includes a case study on Columbus Alternative High School in Ohio, which promotes a “college-going culture” for all students, to provide lessons on how schools can better serve high-achieving students from all backgrounds.

“When people talk about closing the achievement gap, they really think about bringing the bottom up,” Bromberg said. “That’s an important part, but really closing the achievement gap is about equity all along the achievement spectrum.”

Michelle Maitre covers career and college readiness. Contact her and follow her on Twitter @michelle_maitre. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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