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News from EPI Despite progress, English language learner status and racial and economic segregation are holding back too many students

In a comprehensive new report, Stanford professor and EPI research associate Martin Carnoy and EPI economist Emma García find that racial achievement gaps are narrowing, but social class and English language learner gaps remain large and undiminished.

Using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that tracks the mathematics and reading abilities of fourth and eighth grade students from 1996-2013, the authors find that Hispanic students not classified as English language learners (ELL) made large gains when compared with white students of a similar socioeconomic status. While the black-white achievement gap remains substantial, black students are slowly shrinking the gap. Non-ELL Asian students, meanwhile, have pulled ahead of white students in reading and far ahead in mathematics. In stark contrast, Hispanic and Asian students who are designated ELLs are falling further behind white students in mathematics and reading achievement.

“A founding tenet of American democracy is that merit, not accident of birth, should determine individuals’ income and social status,” said García. “When characteristics such as race, gender, or parents’ economic and social capital, rather than their innate ability, hard work, and discipline systematically affect student success, this threatens democratic ideals. Our research highlights a major educational success story for some groups, but the system continues to fail low-income students, who haven’t closed the gap with high-income peers.”

In Five key trends in U.S. student performance, the authors find that despite achievement gap gains, students are still harmed by attending high-poverty schools. Attending a high-poverty school lowers math and reading achievement for students in all racial and ethnic groups, and the chances of ending up in such a school are largely determined by a student’s race and ethnicity and social class. Black and Hispanic students—even if they are not poor—are much more likely than white or Asian students to be in high-poverty schools.

They are also much more likely to attend a school in which black and Hispanics make up more than 75 percent of the student body. Attending such racially segregated schools has a much larger negative effect on black, Hispanic, and Asian students’ achievement than it does on white students.

“Policymakers should enhance supports for low-income children and minorities at risk. More coordinated and widespread education policies would include investing in early childhood education, after-school and summer-enrichment programs, and dual language programs, to strengthen public education, “said Carnoy. “Creating a strong public education system would help all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.”

See related work on Education | Race and Ethnicity