The "excellence gap" in education — the difference in the percentage of low-income students who achieve advanced levels of academic performance and the percentage of high-income students who do — is widening, a research brief from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation finds.
Based on an analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress data tracking student achievement in fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade reading and math, the brief, The Excellence Gap Is Growing (2 pages, PDF), found that not only are students from higher-income families more likely to score at an "advanced" level, but the gap between their performance and the performance of low-income students has widened over the last two decades. Between 1996 and 2017, the gap between the portions of low-income students scoring at an "advanced" level and those of their high-income peers increased 50 percent in fourth-grade reading, 267 percent in fourth-grade math, 100 percent in eighth-grade reading, and 333 percent in eighth-grade math. And while the gaps in twelfth-grade reading and math performance did not worsen significantly, they remain wide.
According to the analysis, the disparities have been driven by the substantial gains made by high-income students in achieving "advanced" scores, while improvement among low-income students has been slower — due in large part to unequal access to resources, quality instruction, and educational opportunities. The brief further notes that the twenty-five million low-income K-12 students nationwide who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch are increasingly unlikely to reach their full potential, while even high-achieving students from lower-income backgrounds are less likely than their higher-income peers to take AP courses, attend college, and enroll at selective postsecondary institutions.
"Students with financial need could have had these impressive gains as well — if they had benefited from the same opportunities and resources as their more affluent peers," writes JKCF senior communications specialist Amber Styles in a blog post. "That so many of these students over the past twenty years were unable to realize their potential is a great loss for these talented students and the nation."