Five Key Trends in U.S. Student Performance

In 15 years of increasing average test scores, black-white and Hispanic-white student achievement gaps continue to close, and Asian students are pulling away from whites in both math and reading achievement. For the improving groups, these long-term trends may be a major educational success story.

In stark contrast, Hispanic and Asian students who are English language learners (ELL) are falling further behind white students in mathematics and reading achievement. And gaps between higher- and lower-income students persist, with some changes that vary by subject and grade. Meanwhile, the proportion of low-income students in U.S. schools has increased rapidly, as has the share of minority students in the student population. The chances of ending up in a high-poverty or high-minority school are highly determined by a student’s race/ethnicity and social class. For example, black and Hispanic students—even if they are not poor—are much more likely than white or Asian students to be in high-poverty schools.

These disparities represent a stubborn educational failure story. Attending a high-poverty school lowers math and reading achievement for students in all racial/ethnic groups and this negative effect has not diminished over time. And attending a school in which blacks and Hispanics make up more than 75 percent of the student body lowers achievement of black, Hispanic, and Asian students but does not affect white students (in some of the analyzed years it actually had a small positive influence on math test scores for whites).

These patterns of change (or lack of change) could have important implications for what is happening in American society in general and in U.S. schools in particular. Sustaining our democratic values and improving our education system call for a host of more coordinated and widespread education, economic, and housing policies—including policies to raise curricular standards, tackle insufficient funding for schools with a large share of low-income students, promote access to education resources from early childhood to college, improve dual language programs, provide economic support for families, and create more integrated schools and neighborhoods.

A new paper by the Economic Policy Institute advances the discussion of these issues by analyzing trends in the influence of race/ethnicity, social class, and gender on students’ academic performance in the United States. It focuses on trends for two different grade levels—eighth and fourth—and two different subjects—mathematics and reading—over the past decade.

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