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

Poor literacy skills hold poorer pupils back in science

A report, published by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Royal Society, has reviewed existing studies to identify interventions and teaching approaches that have a positive impact on pupil learning in science, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The researchers from the University of Oxford analysed data in the National Pupil Database in England to measure the extent of the gap in the performance between economically disadvantaged pupils and pupils from higher socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds on national science tests. This analysis confirmed that disadvantaged pupils (pupils who have been entitled to free school meals at least once in the last six years) had much lower scores and made poorer progress in science, at every stage of their school career, than pupils from higher SES backgrounds. The gap, they suggest, first becomes apparent at Key Stage 1 (ages 5–7) and only gets wider throughout primary and secondary school. The gap for science is as wide as it is in English and maths, and grows particularly strongly between the ages of 5–7 and 11–16.

The study also found that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science scores was how well they understood written texts. According to the report, poor literacy skills affect how well a pupil is able to understand scientific vocabulary and to prepare scientific reports. This suggests that strategies to boost disadvantaged pupils’ reading comprehension could have a positive impact on their achievement in science too. The authors write: “In correlational studies of science learning, the strongest and most consistent predictor of pupils’ scientific attainment has undoubtedly been how literate they are”. They add that there is a “strong relationship” between pupils’ socioeconomic status and their literacy.

A study, which we covered in a previous edition of Best Evidence in Brief, found a similar relationship between literacy and science achievement gaps for pupils in US elementary and middle schools.

Source: Review of SES and science learning in formal educational settings: A report prepared for the EEF and the Royal Society (September 2017), Education Endowment Foundation and Royal Society

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

Does encouraging contingent talk benefit language development?

A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry examines whether language outcomes for low socio-economic status (SES) children can be improved by encouraging contingent talk (how often the parent talks about objects in the child’s current focus of attention) through a low-intensity intervention.

In a randomised controlled trial with high- and low-SES families, 142 children aged 11 months and their parents were randomly allocated to either a contingent talk intervention or a dental health control. Families in the intervention watched a video about contingent talk and were asked to practice it for 15 minutes a day for a month. Families were visited in their homes twice when children were 11, 12, 18 and 24 months. Questionnaires were also collected by mail at 15 months. Parent communication was assessed at 11 months (baseline) and after one month. Infant communication was assessed at baseline, 12, 15, 18 and 24 months.

At baseline, the amount of contingent talk children hear is found to be associated with SES, with lower-SES parents engaging in less contingent talk. At post-test (when children were 12 months old) all parents who had taken part in the intervention engaged in more contingent talk, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Lower-SES parents in the intervention group reported that their children produced more words at 15 and 18 months. However, effects of the intervention didn’t persist at 24 months. So while parents’ contingent talk is increased through the intervention, and this is effective in promoting vocabulary growth for lower-SES infants in the short term, these effects are not long-lasting. The study concludes that follow-up interventions may be necessary to produce benefits lasting to school entry.

Source: A randomised controlled trial to test the effect of promoting caregiver contingent talk on language development in infants from diverse socioeconomic status backgrounds (April 2017), The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry doi:10.1111/jcpp.12725

Academic interventions for low-SES pupils

A systematic review and meta-analysis published in Review of Education Research looks at effective academic interventions for pupils with low socio-economic status (SES).

Jens Dietrichson and colleagues included studies that used a treatment–control group design, were performed in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and EU countries and measured achievement with standardised tests in maths or reading. The analysis included 101 studies performed between 2000 and 2014, 76% of which were randomised controlled trials.

Positive effect sizes (ES) were reported for many of the interventions. Comparatively large and robust average effect sizes were found for interventions that involved tutoring (ES = +0.36), feedback and progress monitoring (ES = +0.32) and co-operative learning (ES = +0.22). The report points out that, although these effect sizes are not large enough to close the gap between high- and low-SES pupils, they represent a substantial reduction of that gap if targeted towards low-SES students.

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

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