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ZEROING IN ON ACHIEVEMENT: New Data Provides Insight into Racial and Socioeconomic Achievement Gaps in U.S. Schools

Glaring academic achievement gaps in communities across the nation are revealed in the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), a new data set from the Stanford Graduate School of Education that provides evidence of racial and socioeconomic disparities to inform policy and practice to improve educational opportunities for all children.

The data set was created from more than 200 million test scores of third- to eighth-grade students, from 2009–13, and includes scores from every public school district in the country, along with school district characteristics including racial and socioeconomic composition, and racial and socioeconomic segregation patterns. SEDA includes data on educational conditions, contexts, and outcomes at both institutional and geographic levels, including schools, districts, metropolitan areas, and states.

“We don’t administer a single standardized exam to all U.S. students, so a clear picture of the differences in academic performance across schools and districts has been elusive up until now,” said Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford and the project director. “It’s now much easier to identify school districts and communities where performance is high, compare them with demographically similar ones that do less well, and try to determine what’s behind the differences.”

The findings show that nearly every school district with large numbers of students from low-income families has an average academic performance significantly below the national grade-level average. The research also shows that in almost all school districts where students are predominantly students of color, there are large achievement gaps between white and African American students and white and Latino students.

A Stanford article on the findings identifies other key patterns of educational inequities determined by the data, including that

  • one-sixth of all students attend public school in school districts where average test scores are more than a grade level below the national average; one-sixth are in districts where test scores are more than a grade level above the national average;
  • the most and least socioeconomically advantaged districts have average performance levels more than four grade levels apart;
  • average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one-and-a-half grade levels; and
  • achievement gaps are larger in districts where black and Hispanic students attend higher-poverty schools than their white peers; where parents on average have high levels of educational attainment; and where large racial/ethnic gaps exist in parents’ educational attainment.

The release of SEDA was accompanied by two reports focusing on specific areas informed by the data, including the geography of racial and ethnic test score gaps, a closer look at school district socioeconomic status, race, and academic achievement.

The first paper, The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps, is the first to explore racial achievement gaps across the country at such a fine geographic scale, allowing comparison to be drawn between and within states. Using the test scores from several thousands school districts across the country, the Stanford researchers find substantial geographic variation in the magnitude of gaps and also identifying the significant variables contributing to these gaps.

In some areas, achievement gaps were nearly zero, others, however, were larger than 1.2 standard deviations, as shown in the image below. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

Estimated White-Black Achievement Gap 2009-2012

“Many of the districts with the largest white-black achievement gaps also appear on the list of place with the largest white-Hispanic gaps (Atlanta; Washington, DC; Chapel Hill, NC; Berkeley, CA), suggesting that the local forces producing racial/ethnic inequality are not specific to one race/ethnic group,” the report notes.

Almost three-quarters of this geographic variation is due to economic, demographic, segregation, and schooling characteristics, the study finds. It also shows that the achievement gaps are related to racial differences in parental income, parental education, and racial or ethnic segregation. The findings also show that wealthier school districts have the greatest inequities, despite the fact that they have more resources to serve students. “But even when students share similar socioeconomic backgrounds and attend similar schools, white students fare better,” notes an article in the Atlantic on the data.

School District Socioeconomic Status, Race, and Academic Achievement, the other report that accompanied the SEDA release, examines the strong relationship between academic achievement and socioeconomic status of school districts.

As shown in the graph below from the report, students in the most advantaged school districts (those on the right side of the graph) have test scores that are more than four grade levels above those of students in the most disadvantaged districts.

Academic Achievement and Socioeconomic Status 2009-2013

Finding that only 6.8 percent of the 1,000 poorest districts in the United States have mean test scores at or above the national average, the report notes that “we have little evidence that we know how to provide adequate educational opportunities for children growing up in low-income communities.”

Even among students of different race/ethnicities who attend schools with similar socioeconomic conditions, the achievement gaps are large. According to the paper, white students score, on average, one-and-a-half or more grade levels higher than black and Hispanic students enrolled in socioeconomically similar school districts. More disheartening, the paper finds that black students score, on average, at or above the national average in only 1.9 percent of the 946 school districts with at least 100 black students per grade.

More information on the SEDA, including accompanying reports, can be found at

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