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A brief history of the achievement gap
In order to understand the complexities of many initiatives at RV, it's important to look at the broader issue of the achievement gap in American public schools
March 6, 2023
In 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Throughout the next 69 years, great strides have been made to ensure that all students get equal access to a good education.
However, despite it all, there still remains an “achievement gap,” a visible difference in academic performance between different demographics. Whether it be overall grades, SAT scores, or state tests, white students generally outperform Black and Hispanic students academically, while Asian students tend to outperform all other racial groups. The average SAT score for a Black high schooler is 926, whereas the average is 964 for Hispanic students, 1098 for white students and 1229 for Asian students. The causes of this gap in performance are not entirely clear and are a topic of debate.
One potential cause is school policies based on “tracking,” the grouping of students into different classes based on their previous performance and current academic ability. Students are placed into classes with those with similar academic performance to their own. The highest performing students are placed into more rigorous classes, while those underperforming are put into less intensive classes to accommodate their skill level. While students used to be railroaded down their track with no room to move into other tracks, this has gradually evolved into the concept of class leveling. High schools across the country, and of course including our own, can offer a variety of course levels, such as AP and IB classes, alongside the traditional honors, standard and accelerated course offerings.
Proponents of course leveling (providing different levels of the same class) claim that it allows hard-working students to challenge themselves by taking more difficult classes and be more competitive in college admissions, while allowing students who are underperforming or simply do not have an interest in a certain subject area to take less rigorous classes.
Those against different course difficulties claim it causes inequality in the education system, because the best teachers at a school’s disposal typically teach honors classes, leaving those in less rigorous courses with a lower quality education. In addition, taking higher difficulty classes like AP and honors classes frequently require the student to receive a recommendation from a teacher, a decision which in theory would be based purely on academic performance, but in practice may be prone to discrimination. Students of color could be trapped in a de facto track of taking the lowest difficulty classes, when they may be capable of tackling higher level courses. In the long term, opponents argue, class leveling may partially explain the achievement gap; white students can enjoy the benefits of being taught by the school’s best teachers and a more rigorous education, while minority students may be left in the dust.
With this in mind, some more progressive school districts have considered or even put into place a policy of “deleveling,” the partial or complete removal of course levels, and replacing them with a single class curriculum that all students will take. “Deleveling” is viewed as a way to more equally distribute teachers and ensure all students receive a similar quality education. Unsurprisingly, however, deleveling policies have attracted widespread and vocal criticism.
“I think removing honors and other higher difficulty course levels would end up hurting students looking to challenge themselves with harder coursework.” said RV student Brianna Mascali. “At the same time, it would raise expectations for CP students higher than they might be prepared for, so everyone loses.”
“I believe it’s ultimately up to the student to put the effort in and succeed. ‘Deleveling’ classes wouldn’t accomplish much besides lowering the bar for everybody.” said senior Jonathan Reymann.
While debate over the role that school policies play in causing the achievement gap and possible solutions continue, there are other, less obvious potential causes of the gap. For example, the “immigrant paradox” reveals differences in culture and attitude regarding education may also provide an explanation.
The “immigrant paradox” refers to how children of immigrant parents tend to outperform children of non immigrant parents academically, despite the disadvantages that most immigrants have to face when moving to the United States like low levels of education and language barriers. Research has shown that the paradox is most likely caused by the attitudes of immigrant parents towards education. Most immigrants to the United States came in search of better opportunities for themselves and for their children. They naturally encourage their children to study hard and do well in school to take advantage of the new opportunities available to them in America.
This idea may help explain why Asians tend to outperform all other ethnic groups, including whites, who would in theory have the most advantage. 84% of Asian Americans are either immigrants or children of immigrants, and so according to the ideas expressed above, the vast majority of Asians will be driven to do well academically. This does not just apply to Asians however; children of first generation African immigrants also perform better academically than their African American peers who were not born from first generation immigrants.
It should be apparent that there are a variety of potential causes for the academic achievement gap, and it is likely that it is a combination of many different factors that ultimately cause the differences in academic achievement between different races. Regardless of the causes of the gap, in the end the fact is that it exists. While we have made significant progress in promoting educational equality, we still have plenty of room for improvement.