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In low-income public schools, where the majority of students are not affluent or privileged, is where most will hear about the achievement gap.

For many teachers, this phrase seems to be used predominantly in relation to underprivileged and lower-income black students and not used to describe accurately the schools in which they attend.

The disparity in academic performance

The educational achievement gap is defined as the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. This takes into consideration standardized test scores, the comparison of grades, college-completion rates as well as dropout rates, course selection as well as a few other success markers. The phrase certainly can look like it is a universal, all-inclusive way to adequately measure the gaps in the system; however, many teachers believe the issue is much more to do with race, class, and privilege than it is about simply underachieving.

When discussing the achievement gap, many, if not most of the students being discussed, are from a Hispanic, black or low-income background. The achievement gap does not take into account some fundamental past and recent systemic elements at play, such as economic and racial segregation, as well as under-funding in public schools, all of which have impacted the education the students who are attending these less privileged schools will get.

Achievement gap calculation

Understanding that the achievement gap is distinguished and calculated using an imperfect method is critical in seeing why it is outdated and needs to be readjusted. The method that has been in use to define the gap from the 1960s is to simply compare the test scores from standardized tests between students of color to those of the white students.

Standardized tests are now no longer seen as the quintessential element to measure or assess how well students are learning, there are many more factors that need to be taken into consideration, not just the hard figures and data. And yet the achievement gap is still considered a valid measure, regardless of the limitations we know of in the standardized testing which measures it.

While having specific data points can be helpful or useful to help to drive the direction of certain aspects of students’ education, when it is used to make a sweeping evaluation for an entire group of students, it is not at all. Given that there are so many limitations as to its measurements, we should not be trusting in the idea of the achievement gap.

Historical issues

Students who are from low-income, black or Hispanic backgrounds are no less capable or less intelligent, these factors in and of themselves do not affect or influence a student’s ability to learn. But, due to the historical issues faced by these marginalized groups and more contemporary funding issues in areas likelier to have a higher population of these students attending schools, there are massive inequalities in their education. The achievement gap should really be seen as an Opportunity Gap.

Opportunity is a much more relevant issue to these students because those living in poverty will not always have the same access to opportunities, such as attending a well-resourced school, that other wealthier kids may have. There are other severe issues these students may be dealing with such as not having enough food and housing security which will massively impact their educational performance. There are of course many other reasons and issue students can face which can add to the opportunity gap.

Public policies

There are particular public policies, such as affirmative action, which attempt to highlight and address the structural inequalities faced by many economically and minority marginalized groups. These policies show us clear evidence that these marginalized students lack the same opportunities. Closing the achievement gap is an outdated construct and should be replaced with striving to redirect efforts to bridge the opportunity gap.

The opportunity gap does not look at test scores to understand students and it more accurately details the more complex issues which can contribute to a student’s performance. It is also a great way for us to more adequately communicate the actual issues faced by these marginalized students, while also changing people’s thoughts and teaching styles. Being forced into seeing all the various ways historical and social implications of class and race can influence the type of education students are more likely to receive can only help us to build a fairer educational playing ground for these students.

Bridging the achievement gap

Shifting your focus from you have to knuckle down and work harder to redirecting your teaching method into helping these kids, despite all of the various hardships or the lack of resource they may be facing, could be a much rewarding educational experience and, by proxy, help bridge the achievement gap.

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