Important Topics Covered In This Article:
  • History of The Achievement Gap
  • Improvements in Reading and Mathematics
  • Science Lags Behind
  • Renewed Sense of Urgency
  • Family is part of the solution
  • Hands-on, Minds-on is critical

History of The Achievement Gap

The achievement gap describes the difference in academic performance between different genders, ethnic and socio-economic groups. The substantial gap between the educational achievements of the Black and White population in our nation is as old as the nation itself. Our nation’s efforts to address the achievement gap date back to the reconstruction period after the civil war. Expectations for closing the gap increased with Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954 and with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, which focused on the inequality of school resources. The civil rights act of 1964 raised hopes for progress in education and in society at large.

Improvements in Reading and Mathematics

As shown below, there have been periods where the reading and mathematics achievement gaps have narrowed (1973-1988) and stagnated (1990 – 2008). Each year, academic achievement scores for whites are higher than that for Blacks and Hispanics.


Click for Larger View

Source: 2010 ETS Policy Information Report

Science Lags Behind

The achievement gap for science is much wider according to the 2005 NAEP score card for science

  • For 4th graders (9-years) and 8th Graders (13-years), ~ 80 % white, 4 % black, 6 % Hispanics , and ~ 16 % of students qualifying for reduced lunch are at or above national proficiency levels for science.
  • According to the 2008 ACT College Readiness Report, 78 percent of high school graduates did not meet the readiness benchmark levels for one or more entry-level college courses in mathematics, science, reading and English.
  • Only 15 % of U.S college students earn degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics  (STEM) areas compared to 50 % and higher overseas.

So then, how can we compete in a global STEM enterprise when we are not providing  a quarter of our population an education that prepares and inspires them to pursue successful careers in STEM fields?

Renewed Sense of Urgency

Since the publication of a Nation at Risk in 1984, government, K-12 schools, universities, businesses, and private groups have responded to federal and state initiatives to close the achievement gap by providing programs and resources. Today, there are abundant programs and resources; many of them free, to help improve reading, science and mathematics achievement of our youth. In spite of the many heroic efforts by individuals, businesses, government, K-12 schools, higher education and various groups, the achievement gap has stalled for the past 10 years although test scores of 9- and 13- year olds have improved slightly.

Today, there is a renewed sense of urgency to close the achievement gap as evidenced by the billions of federal investment seeking to improve student achievement in STEM, teacher quality and accountability for student performance outcomes.

The business community has always recognized that low academic achievement has far reaching implications for the social and economic well-being of local communities and the nation at large. The formation of Change the Equation by over 100 CEOs across the nation demonstrates the need to close the gap and help our citizens compete in the global STEM economy. For every STEM job that is out there one qualified American would be competing with 4 or more equally qualified and less expensive STEM professionals in Asia and Europe. If we do not find cost and time effective ways to increase talent pool in STEM, we will be left behind in the global STEM economy and we are already seeing this happen.

This sobering statement is reflected in the 2010 National Academies Report “Gathering Storm Revisited: Approaching Category 5” where several indicators for competitiveness show that we are already falling behind socially and economically.

Family is part of the solution

The participation of parents is an essential part of any effort to improve education. Students whose parents are involved in their education generally have higher grades and test scores, better attendance, higher graduation rates, and greater enrollment in postsecondary education. Parental involvement without high quality science educational experiences does not prepare students for a global workforce. Several studies by the Department of Education show that access to high quality science education in K-12 determines the level of participation all segments of our population in STEM fields.

Hands-on, Minds-on is Critical

Research shows that student achievement strongly correlates with the level of engagement in learning. We also know that students respond when teachers are confident and knowledgeable about a subject.  When 93 % of U.S public school students in 5th through 8th grade are taught physical sciences by a teacher without a degree or certification in the physical science how we expect students to be inspired to consider studying science subjects in school? In order to increase student achievement in STEM, we need to inspire our youth to choose to get involved in science. At the K-12 level, this requires providing students a fundamental understanding of how science is done and building their confidence in science. Even if students do not choose scientific career paths, the scientific knowledge they gain from participating in K-12 science programs will give them a competitive edge in their field of study.

Engaging students in science requires that we pay more attention to how we deliver our well-intentioned programs and provide ways to empower teachers to sustain long-term student interest in science.  Following this simple rule – learning science is something that students do, and not something that is done to them- in every aspect of how we strategize, design, implement and deliver STEM programs will help increase teacher and student engagement in science. How much engagement? This depends on each program participant. At Why Science we know that if you follow this rule, you will ignite a passion for science that will motivate students to choose get involved in STEM.  As students explore their passion for science, they build knowledge and confidence, and develop a long term interest that will motivate them to pursue careers in STEM.


  1. Education Testing Service, Policy Information Report “The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped”. Available at
  2. The Nation’s Report Card. Available at
  3. The National Academies, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approach Category 5. Available at
  4. Note that the ACT estimates that students meeting the readiness standard in a given subject have 75 % chance of getting a C and a 50 percent change of getting a B in an entry level course. Information available at the ACT website:
  5. Department of Education, The Blue Ribbon Schools Program. Recognizing Excellent American Schools. Available at

3 Responses to The Achievement Gap: We Have Not Closed It Yet … What Makes Us Think We Can?

  1. Anyone who has a background in math and science understands that you can never completely close a gap in a linear function bound by a time restriction. In another words, whenever everyone has to perform the same activity within the same time allotment, there will always be a ranking of speed and quality….even if everyone involved is a “gifted student.”

    If we are serious about education, science application is the place to start. Coordinating knowledge from physics, anatomy, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, ergonomics, logistics, reason, and logic, it is simple:

    Students hold the 1st degree of influence in changing the brain (objective of learning). Empower the individual student with choice, with high standards, with tools that bring high results, then (AND THIS IS THE KEY) allow the student to become a BEYONDER, a person who goes beyond the standards. Parents hold the position of the 2nd degree of influence. Reinstate the parent in the mix and reward those parents who have risen above the mindset that they do not count.

    Changing educational institutions from linear functions to radial functions restructures schools from bureaucracies that are driven by policy and controls aimed at the masses to service-oriented institutions that honor the uniqueness of the individual.

    Sound overwhelming?

    Apply basic prinicples of the sciences based on efficiency and we can not only “catch-up” on the international scene; we can surpass our counterparts.

    Step1: Ask your school to allow any student the opportunity to do independent work with reward and recognition.

    Step 2: Provide training for parents, students, and teachers on mental efficiency and productivity.

    Step 3: Step back and watch a special ed student complete 5-1/2 years of mathematics in 12 months, as I did.

    The human brain is capable of so much more!

    We just have to get “out of the way.”

  2. Sue says:

    this post should anyone print out and put on every bus in the world

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