Special Report

The Achievement Gap

By Lynn Olson & Craig D. Jerald — January 08, 1998 2 min read

The numbers tell a sad and alarming story: Most 4th graders who live in U.S. cities can’t read and understand a simple children’s book, and most 8th graders can’t use arithmetic to solve a practical problem.

At the high school level, slightly more than half of big-city students fail to graduate in four years. And even those who do end up with a diploma are often woefully unprepared for the workplace or college.

“Everyone ought to be just panicked,” says Gov. George V. Voinovich of Ohio. “I’ve talked to a lot of governors, and they don’t even know what their dropout rate is in their urban districts.”

We know from experience and from research that there are urban schools where poor and minority children achieve at high levels. Yet no city has been able to reproduce that success on a large scale.

More than half of 4th and 8th graders fail to reach the most minimal standard on national tests in reading, math, and science, meaning that they probably have difficulty doing grade-level work.

The challenges are many. Most urban students lack access to the rigorous curricula, well-prepared teachers, and high expectations that would make better achievement possible. Performance is worst in high-poverty urban schools, where the majority of students are poor. In these schools, two-thirds or more of students perform below the basic level on national tests.

But poverty is not the only barrier to achievement in urban districts.

Somehow, simply being in an urban school seems to drag performance down. Students in urban schools where the majority of children are poor are more likely to do poorly on tests than their peers who attend high-poverty schools outside cities.

Urban districts such as Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, New York, and San Francisco report that test scores are rising. But the achievement gap between urban and nonurban students in most states remains huge, as does the gap between minority and nonminority students within cities.

Nearly three-fourths of Illinois 3rd graders in 1996 were rated “proficient” on the state reading test, but fewer than half the 3rd graders in East St. Louis and Chicago met the standard.

Only 8.5 percent of Detroit’s 11th graders earned “proficient” scores in science on Michigan’s high school proficiency test in 1997. In 1996, the average Connecticut 4th grader was nearly 10 times as likely as his Hartford counterpart to achieve proficiency on all three of the state’s mastery tests.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal testing program that provides the best state-by-state data on student performance, urban students perform much worse than their nonurban peers.

The few states where urban students score about the same as or better than everyone else are those with countywide school systems or “extended” cities, such as Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, and North Carolina. The states with the largest urban achievement gaps are ones with the most socially and economically isolated central cities, such as Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week