The achievement gap, defined as “any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students” is one that is most commonly measured in ethnic and socioeconomic terms. Closely related to the opportunity gap, which refers to the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources, the achievement gap is the result of a multitude of complex and interwoven problems as highlighted in the OCR report:

1. A lack of access to college-prep courses.

“A quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry. Fewer than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high school” (1).

Inadequate access to college-prep courses for minority and low-income students results in high-schoolers who, despite having their high school diplomas, are still painfully ill-prepared for higher education. Moreover, the unavailability of these classes also impedes students in these groups from cultivating their academic interests, thus hindering them from achieving academic success and limiting their potential for productivity in the workforce later in life.

2. Significant stereotyping and institutionalized bias which leads to students of color and low-income students not being enrolled in AP or Honors classes (even when there is access to such classes) due to administratively-imposed low academic expectations of these minority students.

“For example, while black and Latino students represent 16% and 21%, respectively, of high school enrollment, they are only 8% and 12%, respectively, of the students enrolled in calculus” (10).

When students of color are not challenged due to preconceptions about what their minority status means in regards to their capacity for scholastic achievement, a state of accommodation forms–one in which students of color actually do begin to underperform because that is what is expected of them.

3. Standardized testing designs, which exhibit cultural bias through the inclusion of questions or concepts that are less familiar to certain minority groups (urban youth or the children of immigrants), and testing formats also put members of these groups at a disadvantage. There is also the issue of stereotype threat:

“The term [stereotype threat] was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students.”

Standardized exams, such as the SAT, are biased against both students of color and students in lower socioeconomic groups. Created by committees of primarily white, upper-middle class males, the tests are inevitably tainted by a degree of cultural oversight. Moreover, the tests often serve as indicators of English proficiency and American cultural immersion more so than intellect or college readiness due to their incorporation of culturally-influenced components such as idioms, putting immigrants at a disadvantage.

Poorer test takers are disadvantaged by the standardized testing system and its influence in college admissions due to their lack of access to the expensive tutoring services and multiple opportunities for test-taking that their wealthier counterparts benefit from. Often times, a notably higher score on the SAT is acquired through the practice and study of test structure as opposed to test material–and low-income students simply do not have access to the resources necessary to provide them with such practice. Thus, there is a discrepancy between the test scores of minority and low-income students, and those of upper-middle class white students.

4. Instability at home (parents who work long hours, and, as a result, are not in the home often; significant family responsibility in the form of employment/caretaking, which often takes precedent over academia).

In alignment with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, low-income students are less likely to place priority on academia because of their need to first stabilize situations that pertain to physiological and safety-related necessities. A student who works 30 hours a week to help support her family is certainly at a disadvantage when compared to her higher-income peers who do not have any such duties to distract them from their studies. Furthermore, this student is more likely to be subject to pressure to not graduate and/or pursue higher education, in favor of working and supporting her family. Complex situations like these contribute to the discrepancy between low-income/minority youth and their peers.

5. An over-representation of minority students in low-performing schools with low funding and inexperienced teachers.

“Racial disparities are particularly acute in schools where uncertified and unlicensed teachers are; nearly 7% of the nation’s black students – totaling over half a million students – attend schools where 80% or fewer of teachers meet these requirements; black students are more than four times as likely, and Latino students twice as likely, as white students to attend these schools” (1).

Low-income and minority students often times need more support from their schools and educators to provide a positive and supportive learning environment, and yet it is these students who attend schools with the highest number of under-qualified teachers and inadequate funding. This inevitably results in students who lag behind their higher-income white cohorts.

With figures such as these, it is no surprise that students of color have trouble not only graduating from high school, but doing so with the skills and academic preparation necessary for them to attend and thrive in a college environment. Those who do manage to achieve academic success are a rarity, especially in a system whose design appears to be biased against them (a fact which may explain why the internet is so abuzz with the story of Ghanaian-American Kwasi Enin, and can not seem to be able to separate Enin’s success from his minority status).

Certainly, it is one thing to address these questions, and an entirely different beast to answer them – much less answer them effectively; discussion, however, is a good place to start.

[Image Attribute: Deep C Wind]