Income gap creates achievement gap, study says

Feb. 22, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

Correction: The first sentence of the online version of this article originally did not match the more up-to-date version printed in The Daily Feb. 22, 2012. The article has now been updated to reflect this change. 


In the past 50 years, socioeconomic status has become an increasingly important predictor of academic achievement on standardized tests, according to a recently published study by Stanford associate professor of education Sean Reardon.


University officials, however, said the data that would be necessary to determine whether a similar achievement gap exists between students from low- and high-income families at Stanford is dispersed between different administrative offices, making it difficult to track.

Koren Bakkegard, associate dean of Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR), told The Daily she does not know of a centralized organization in the University that analyzes both academic achievement and socioeconomic status.


“It may very well be that no office at the University has or combines the data that would be necessary to generate those kinds of records,” Bakkegard said.


“In UAR, for example, we do not have information about students’ socioeconomic status,” Bakkegard continued. “To my knowledge, only the Financial Aid Office would have this information, and I would be surprised if they tracked students’ academic performance since that is not their function.”


Tommy Lee Woon, director of diversity and first-generation programs, also could not speak to whether or not an achievement gap exists between students of varying income levels due to the way data is kept by the University.


“I unfortunately do not have the answers,” Woon said.


“Data is very decentralized here,” he added. “Some of the data may be embedded in reports, but tracking it down can be a challenge.”


Reardon said that although he has no statistical evidence to back up his claim, he is doubtful that such an achievement gap exists at Stanford, as judged by his research methodology, because of Stanford’s highly selective admissions process.


The data that Reardon used for his study came from several different nationwide standardized tests, including data collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.


“One of the criteria I used to decide which studies to use was that I didn’t want them to be local,” Reardon said.


The results of his study showed that in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, family income, rather than race, determined how students performed on standardized tests. The gap between children in the 90th percentile and children in the 10th percentile of income was roughly twice as large as the difference in achievement between white and black children.


In addition, the study showed that the achievement gap between children of high- and low-income families was about 30 or 40 percent larger for children born in 2001 as compared to children born 25 years earlier.


“Because a place like Stanford is so selective, most students would score very high on these tests,” Reardon said.


Stanford students who come from low-income families would have scored high on standardized tests, and therefore their performance would not be remarkably different from that of students from middle class or upper class backgrounds.


He added, however, that “the way [the achievement gap] is reflected is that there are fewer students with low-income backgrounds at a place like Stanford than kids from a higher-income background.”


The achievement gap that Reardon saw in his research manifests itself in the fact that lower rates of low-income students attend college at all, let alone elite universities such as Stanford.


With its need-blind admissions process and extensive financial aid program, Stanford aims to attract as many qualified low-income students as it can. However, Reardon said that most students from low-income backgrounds never get the chance to succeed at a high enough level to be considered by universities.


“Kids with lower income backgrounds do not get the opportunities to succeed academically and don’t often get to go to places like Stanford,” Reardon said.

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Applications Due Soon