Many education policymakers and equity advocates on the left have insisted that different educational outcomes among various racial and ethnic student groups are mainly due to demographic factors, such as race and socioeconomic status. But a new study has shown that culture, rather than demographics, is mainly responsible for “excellence gaps,” the disparities in advanced academic performance between different student groups.
Two researchers from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Meredith Coffey, Ph.D., and Adam Tyner, Ph.D., analyzed nearly two decades of assessment data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) on eighth-grade reading, math (from 2003 to 2022), and science (from 2009 to 2019). They defined “excellence” as students who earned “advanced” scores on math and readings of the NAEP assessment. They used the mother’s education as a proxy for the student’s socioeconomic status since the NAEP questionnaire collects such data by asking test-takers to select from the following options: “She did not finish high school,” “She graduated from high school,” “She had some education after high school,” “She graduated from college,” or “I don’t know” (the final group was excluded from the analyses).
Some of the study’s findings confirmed what was expected: Within the same racial or ethnic group, socioeconomic status correlates to education outcomes because the share of students achieving at the advanced level declines as socioeconomic status decreases. For example, the percentage of black students who scored “Advanced” in math dropped from 3 percent of the highest socioeconomic status (mothers who graduated from college) to 0.5 percent of the lowest socioeconomic status (mothers who didn’t finish high school). Across racial groups, black students of the highest socioeconomic status outperformed lowest-socioeconomic-status white students whose mothers didn’t finish high school (2.5 percent) in math.