The evidence on achievement gaps over time: Contained but not closing

Research has shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is the highest predictor of children’s academic achievement. Moreover, the achievement gap between low- and high-SES pupils begins early in their schooling. How effective have initiatives been at narrowing the achievement gap? Emma Garcia at the Education Policy Institute in the US and Elaine Weiss at the Broader Bolder Approach to Education examined two cohorts of kindergartners (Year 1), those who started in 1998 and those who started in 2010. They were looking at the relationship between socio-economic status and kindergartners’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills at the start of their school years to see if the achievement gap had narrowed in this twelve-year span.

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics – Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies of the Kindergarten Classes of 1998-99 and 2010-11, Garcia and Weiss found that the achievement gap did not change between 1998 to 2010 among pupils living in the US’s highest and lowest economic strata, a difference of 1.17 standard deviations in reading and 1.25 standard deviations in maths, despite parents’ increased involvement in educating their children across all SES groups and the implementation of programmes designed to narrow these gaps. Interestingly, they did find that the percentage of children living in poverty grew during that time, yet the achievement gap did not grow, nor did it narrow. They found that greater parental involvement and children’s pre-school attendance contained the gap, but did not do enough to eliminate the overall effects of poverty on pupil achievement.

The researchers then reviewed twelve programmes designed to narrow the achievement gap. The most effective programmes addressed not only academics, but ensured the children were getting proper meals and healthcare and provided other supports for children and their families.

Source: Education inequalities at the school starting gate: Gaps, trends, and strategies to address them (September 2017), Education Policy Institute

Does increasing time spent in class improve pupil performance?

A study by Huebener and colleagues examined whether increasing the amount of time pupils spend in the classroom affects their performance.

The authors used PISA scores to analyse the effect of increasing the time spent in class by two hours per week over a five-year period for ninth-grade students in Germany (average age = 15 years old). During the additional classroom time, pupils were taught new content.

Their findings indicate that while increasing the time spent in class did improve pupils’ average performance, effect sizes were small. The increase in lesson time was shown to increase average PISA test scores in reading, maths and science (effect size between +0.04 and +0.06 for one additional hour per week). However, these results differ according to pupil ability, with a widening gap in performance between low- and high-performing pupils. The researchers suggest this is because the additional teaching time was used to teach new content, and that lower-performing pupils may not be able to cope with this additional content. They recommend that when policymakers consider adding additional classroom time, they consider how this time is spent. Different pupils have different learning needs, so the content of the extra lessons, rather than the time, is more important to improving pupil performance.

Source: Increased instruction hours and the widening gap in student performance (August 2017), Labour Economics, Volume 47

Programme components and disadvantaged pupils

Research shows that pupils from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to attend pre-school or to have a home environment incorporating literacy and language activities than their less disadvantaged peers. As a result, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to enter school with the social and academic skills needed to set them up for success. Jans Deitrichson and colleagues at the Danish National Centre for Social Research recently performed a meta-analysis aimed at determining what components within academic interventions are the most effective at improving the achievement of primary school students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

A total of 101 studies performed between 2000–2014 were included in the meta-analysis. Seventy-six percent were randomised controlled trials and the rest were quasi-experimental studies. Studies had to target pupils from low socioeconomic backgrounds, utilise standardised test results in reading and maths as the outcome measures, and take place in OECD or EU countries, although most were in the US. They also had to contain information that allowed the researchers to calculate effect sizes.

The authors sorted each study’s academic intervention into “component categories” (the methods used). Examples include coaching/ mentoring of pupils, cooperative learning, incentives, small-group tutoring, or a combination of these or other methods. Analysis demonstrated that tutoring, feedback and progress monitoring, and cooperative learning were the components with the largest effect sizes. The authors stated that although the average effect sizes for these components were not large enough to close the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic pupils, they certainly reduced it. They suggest that cost-effectiveness studies should be performed on these programmes to give policymakers and educators a fuller picture of programme benefits.

Source: Academic interventions for elementary and middle school students with low socioeconomic status: A systematic review and meta-analysis (January 2017), Review of Educational Research, Vol 87, Issue 2

Slow progress in closing the attainment gap

A new report from the Education Policy Institute has examined the progress made in closing the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils in the UK (those eligible for Pupil Premium) and their peers. The analysis considers how that gap varies across the country and how it has changed since 2007.

While the report does find that the gap has closed slightly, progress is slow. Between 2007 and 2016, the gap by the end of primary school only narrowed by 2.8 months. Over the same period, the gap by the end of secondary school narrowed by 3 months. However, last year, disadvantaged pupils were still 19 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs, meaning that on average a disadvantaged pupil falls two months behind their peers for each year of secondary school. The situation is worse for the most persistently disadvantaged pupils (those who have been eligible for free school meals for at least 80 per cent of their time in school). Over the last decade, the attainment gap for this group has actually widened slightly by 0.3 months. In 2016 the most disadvantaged pupils were on average over two full years of learning behind their peers by the end of secondary school.

The report also finds that some regions of the UK are doing worse than others when it comes to closing the gap. The disadvantage gap is generally smaller in London, the south and the east of England, at around 16 to 18 months. Successful areas in London include Hackney, Islington, Newham and Barnet, where disadvantaged pupils are around eight months behind. The Isle of Wight has the largest gap – pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average 29 months behind their peers by the end of secondary school.

Source: Closing the gap? Trends in educational attainment and disadvantage (August 2017), Education Policy Institute

Trends in early literacy

The transition from kindergarten to first grade (Year 1 to Year 2 in the UK) is considered to be a critical period for children’s academic and social development. Expectation about children’s early literacy learning has risen over time, but has their achievement – and how?

Jerome V D’Agostino and Emily Rodgers analysed achievement data obtained from a US database for Reading Recovery (a literacy intervention for first grade pupils) for more than 364,000 children entering first grade in the same schools. From this data they created a literacy profile for pupils at entry to the first grade over a 12-year period, beginning in the 2002–03 school year.

Their research, published in Educational Researcher, found that overall, reading for all pupils in the first grade improved measurably between 2002 and 2013. Literacy scores on entry increased over time. The effect size change in achievement gaps narrowed (-0.10) on basic skills like letter identification, but widened on advanced skills like text reading level (+0.08) over 12 years.

Source: Literacy achievement trends at entry to first grade (March 2017), Educational Researcher, Vol 46, Issue 2.

Three-year achievement gap between poor pupils and their better-off peers

Research published by the Sutton Trust shows that for schools in the UK, the achievement gap in maths, science and reading between the top-performing pupils from low and high socio-economic backgrounds is around two years and eight months.

Global Gaps by Dr John Jerrim of the UCL Institute of Education analyses the 2015 test scores from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) PISA tests to assess how well the top 10% of pupils in the UK’s schools are doing. In England, the highest-achieving pupils score above the median score for OECD countries in maths, science and reading. However, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, high-achieving pupils perform, on average, below the OECD median scores.

For girls in England, the achievement gap in science and reading is even greater. High-achieving girls from low socio-economic backgrounds are around three years behind their more advantaged, high-achieving peers. This is around eight months greater than the equivalent gap for boys for science, and nine months greater for reading. There is no significant gender difference in maths, with an achievement gap of around two years and nine months for both girls and boys.

Source: Global Gaps: Comparing socio-economic gaps in the performance of highly able UK pupils internationally (February 2017), The Sutton Trust