In this lesson, we will find out about achievement gaps that exist among American students and discuss some things that educators can do to close the gaps.

Definition and Performance Measures

What are achievement gaps? Achievement gaps are differences in educational success that exist between students as a result of poverty, English language proficiency, disability, race, or ethnicity. Educators measure gaps using a variety of data points, such as standardized test scores, graduation rates, and attendance rates. Let’s examine some statistics that indicate achievement gap among American students and discuss ways that teachers can work towards closing those gaps.


For example, by looking at high school graduation rates from 2013, we can easily see disparities between the norm and the rates of some identified minority groups. The average graduation rate was 81.4%. However, only 73.3% of students living in poverty graduated. Although various races have begun to close the gap over the past few years, graduation rates for American Indian students is still only 69.7%. 70.7% of African American students graduate from high school, as well as 75.2% of Hispanic students. 70.7% of African American students graduate from high school, as well as 75.2% of Hispanic students. Lower still are the graduation rates for some other student populations.

Similar results are seen when looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for both 4th and 8th grade students in math and reading. For example, 14% of students who did not qualify for free lunch failed to meet proficiency on the 8th grade math test, but 41% of the students who receive free lunches lacked proficiency on the same test. 69% of 8th grade ELL students did not meet math proficiency, nor did 65% of students with disabilities.

The good news is that progress is being made. For example, in 1990, 83% of African American students did not meet proficiency in fourth grade math. By 2013, the percentage of students that did not meet proficiency dropped to 34%. Graduation rates have also improved over the past several years. Between the 2010-11 school year and the 2012-13 school year, graduation rates raised nearly 5% for American Indian students. The graduation rate for both Black and Hispanic students have rise about four percentage points in just two years, from 2011 to 2013.

Meeting the Need of All Students

What can teachers do to meet the needs of students who have been traditionally under-served? It’s important that teachers simultaneously meet the needs of all students while providing targeted instruction based on data to support struggling students. Setting individualized learning goals with students ensures that the learning experience is maximized for each child. While you as a teacher may not feel as though it is within your power to control systemic societal problems that have contributed to the achievement gap, look for opportunities within your classroom, grade-level, or school that can make a difference for your students.

Consider the following questions: Are students given the opportunity to demonstrate learning according to their learning style? Do books and other learning materials reflect characters that a diverse student population can relate to? What are you doing to make sure that families from diverse backgrounds feel connected to the school?

Gaps in achievement are perpetuated by well-meaning educators who make the assumption that all students in a particular grade level have similar needs. By consciously considering the best way to reach each student, opportunity is created for every child to find success in school.

Lesson Summary

Achievement gaps are differences in success rates among groups of students. Data pulled from a variety of sources, including graduation rates and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores clearly show that poverty, English language proficiency, disability, race, and ethnicity play a significant role in educational outcomes of students. While the graduation rates are improving for African American, American Indian, and Hispanic students, they are still 6-12% lower than average. The lowest graduation rate among a sub-group occurs in students within the foster system with only 58% of students graduating. Similarly, reading and math scores are consistently lower among these traditionally under-served subgroups. Teachers can help close the achievement gap among their students by teaching and assessing according to the students’ learning styles and developing learning experiences that are relevant and engaging to a diverse student population.