In 15 years of increasing average test scores, black-white and Hispanic-white student achievement gaps continue to close, and Asian students are pulling away from whites in both math and reading achievement. For the improving groups, these long-term trends may be a major educational success story.
In stark contrast, Hispanic and Asian students who are English language learners (ELL) are falling further behind white students in mathematics and reading achievement. And gaps between higher- and lower-income students persist, with some changes that vary by subject and grade. Meanwhile, the proportion of low-income students in U.S. schools has increased rapidly, as has the share of minority students in the student population. The chances of ending up in a high-poverty or high-minority school are highly determined by a student’s race/ethnicity and social class. For example, black and Hispanic students—even if they are not poor—are much more likely than white or Asian students to be in high-poverty schools.
These disparities represent a stubborn educational failure story. Attending a high-poverty school lowers math and reading achievement for students in all racial/ethnic groups and this negative effect has not diminished over time. And attending a school in which blacks and Hispanics make up more than 75 percent of the student body lowers achievement of black, Hispanic, and Asian students but does not affect white students (in some of the analyzed years it actually had a small positive influence on math test scores for whites).
These patterns of change (or lack of change) could have important implications for what is happening in American society in general and in U.S. schools in particular. Sustaining our democratic values and improving our education system call for a host of more coordinated and widespread education, economic, and housing policies—including policies to raise curricular standards, tackle insufficient funding for schools with a large share of low-income students, promote access to education resources from early childhood to college, improve dual language programs, provide economic support for families, and create more integrated schools and neighborhoods.
A founding ideal of American democracy is that merit, not accident of birth, should determine individuals’ income and social status. Schools have assumed a major role in judging key elements of merit among young people—namely, academic skills, hard work, self-discipline, and cooperative behavior. Schools do so mainly by evaluating students in a variety of subjects deemed important for success later in life. No one expects outcomes at the end of the schooling process to be the same for every student, since initial ability varies, and some young people are more disciplined and willing to work harder in school than others. Yet, when students’ inherent characteristics—such as race, gender, or parents’ economic and social capital—rather than their innate ability, hard work, and discipline systematically affect their school outcomes, this threatens democratic ideals.
These apparent contradictions between the ideals and reality of U.S. schools have led analysts over the last few decades to study and try to explain persistent gaps in student achievement. Particular attention has been given to the gap between blacks and Hispanics versus whites, across social-class groups, and by gender. Research has provided evidence that race and ethnicity continue to be important factors in explaining achievement differences. However, much of the black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps are accounted for by social-class differences. That is, in the United States, race and often ethnicity are closely intertwined with social class. Minority children, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, are more likely to be poor than white children because of the ways that race and ethnicity shape opportunity and economic outcomes. Black and Hispanic children are also more likely than their white or Asian-American counterparts to live in low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods and to attend schools with high concentrations of low-income, nonwhite students.
Notwithstanding these troubling realities, achievement differences between blacks and whites and between Hispanics and whites have shrunk in recent decades. The bad news is that until recently gaps between the higher and lower social-class groups were increasing, particularly between children in the highest income group and everyone else (Reardon 2011; Reardon, Waldfogel, and Bassok 2016; Putnam 2015).
This paper advances the discussion of these issues by analyzing trends in the influence of race/ethnicity, social class, and gender on students’ academic performance in the United States. It focuses on trends for two different grade levels—eighth and fourth—and two different subjects—mathematics and reading—over the past decade. Trends in eighth-grade mathematics since the mid-1990s are also examined. This paper also explores the ways in which English language ability relates to Hispanics’ and Asian Americans’ academic performance over time (Nores and Barnett 2014). We use individual student microdata gathered from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to estimate the math and reading performance of students in the fourth and eighth grades from 2003 to 2013, and the math performance of eighth-graders from 1996 to 2013.
Our study has six objectives:
To describe changes in the racial characteristics and socioeconomic status (SES) of the student population, and in the composition of student bodies in U.S. schools over the past two decades in the periods 1996–2003 and 2003–2013
To describe the types of schools (high- and low-poverty, high and low concentrations of blacks plus Hispanics) that black, Hispanic, white, and Asian children attend and how these have changed over the past 10 and 20 years
To estimate changes in students’ achievement gaps by social class and race/ethnicity, including gaps for students designated as English language learners (ELLs), over the past 10 and 20 years
To estimate changes over the past decade in the influence of school composition—such as concentration of students by poverty, race, and ethnic status—on students’ achievement gaps by social class and race/ethnicity
To estimate whether and how much the trajectories of social class and race/ethnicity achievement gaps differed over the past 10 years for male and female students
To estimate whether and how much these trajectories differed over the past 10 years for lower-achieving students and higher-achieving students