On May 4, Sean Reardon, Ph.D., Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, spoke to a relatively small audience in the auditorium of Evanston Township High School. On a nationwide basis, he said, the white/black achievement gap has narrowed in the last 50 years, but the gap between students from low-income and non-low-income households has widened, particularly as parents from high-income families are devoting more time and resources to expand their children’s learning opportunities from birth on.

A point Dr. Reardon repeatedly made during his presentation is that, both nationally and in Evanston, wide gaps in test scores exist by both race and income level at third grade, and they do not change much between third and eighth grades.

On average, all student groups – black, white, low-income, non-low-income – are showing roughly the same amount of academic growth between third and eighth grades. The difference is their starting points at third grade.

Dr. Reardon said whole communities need to consider strategies that address the opportunity gaps that exist before third grade, including starting at birth, and that upper-income people and people in power may need to approach the issue with a different mind-set. 

Dr. Reardon based his analysis on about 215 million standardized test scores taken by 40 million students in grades 3-8 in every public school in the United States between 2009 and 2013. He said he did a lot of work harmonizing the test data from 11,500 school districts into a common scale.

The data gives essentially the same picture of the gaps in School District 65 as were portrayed in the 2010 study performed by Paul Zavitkovsky of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and as portrayed in subsequent achievement reports prepared by School District 65. 

 Dr. Reardon, however, was able to provide data showing how District 65’s students do, compared to students nationwide. One striking finding is that the average test score of white students in Evanston are the highest of any school district in the nation.

At eighth grade, the average test score of black students in District 65 were slightly lower than the national average of all students in the nation.

Some Historical Trends – Race/Income Gaps

“The black/white achievement gap today is still, on average, about two grade levels,” said Dr. Reardon. “That’s down from three of four grade levels 50 years ago.

“The achievement gap between high- and low-income students, on the other hand, has grown in the opposite direction. It was low in the 1950s and 60s and grew fairly rapidly in the mid-70s to 2000 or so.”

On a national basis, “low-income students on average are scoring about two grade levels behind high-income students,” Dr. Reardon said.

One reason for the rising gap based on income is the changing workforce and generally the need for higher education for higher-paying jobs. Dr. Reardon also pointed to “the rising economic inequality starting in the late 70s. … It is now higher than at any point in the last century. The top 10% of earners now almost earn 50% of the income in the United States. That growth in inequality means that children are growing up – poor children and rich children – in really different kinds of households.”

The average family in the bottom quartile spends $1,300 on a child per year, Dr. Reardon said, while families in the top quartile spend $9,000 per year.

“All families are spending more time with their children, but that increase is greatest for high-income and highly educated folks,” he said, generally because they have more time.

In an article, “No Rich Child Left Behind” published in the New York Times, Dr. Reardon said, “High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

“The rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor,” Dr. Reardon said. See sidebar.

In making his presentation, Dr. Reardon emphasized that test scores are not a measure of intelligence, but in the aggregate can be thought of as a measure of opportunity. “If you look at the average test scores in a particular place, I can give you some sense of the level of educational opportunity that children growing up in that community have had.”

He makes clear, though, that test scores are not just measuring educational opportunity in schools, but the aggregate of all kinds of opportunities that children have to learn “from the time they’re born to the time they finish school – opportunities in their home, opportunities in the neighborhood, in childcare, in school programs, in after-school programs.”

Opportunity by Income Status

On a national basis, low-income students on average are scoring about two grade levels behind non-low-income students, Dr. Reardon said.

“If you look at the growth rate [nationwide], poor students have the same growth rate in test scores between third and eighth grades [as non-low-income students]. The difference is largely present in third grade and doesn’t change a lot after third grade.”

In District 65, the average test scores of third-graders from low-income households are “about a grade level below the national average of all kids nationwide [that’s all kids, not low-income kids nationwide],” said Dr. Reardon. “They catch up almost by eighth grade to the national average. They’re a little less than a half grade level behind.”

The non-low-income students in District 65 start out in third grade more than three grade levels above the national average. At eighth grade, there is about a four-grade-level difference.

“It does not change appreciably during that time period. So that opportunity gap is produced earlier than third grade. It doesn’t widen during school years, but it doesn’t narrow appreciably either,” said Dr. Reardon.

 “This is not a pattern that is unique to Evanston,” added Dr. Reardon. “In most places we looked, the achievement gaps are almost the same in eighth grade as they are in third grade. Most of the action that results in the achievement gaps is before third grade.”

“That’s not to say that schools might not do more to reduce this [gap] after third grade, but whatever is the primary cause of it, it is not the experiences kids are having from third grade on.”

Opportunity by Race

“Evanston has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country,” said Dr. Reardon. “But it’s a large achievement gap, not because the black students are failing, but because the white and affluent students are being enriched by so much opportunity.

 “In Evanston, black students score a little bit below the national average of all students in third grade and a little below the national average at eighth grade. Not much of a difference,” said Dr. Reardon.

He added that black students in District 65 scored higher on average than black students in 78% of the school districts in the nation.

Hispanic students at third grade are scoring “a little lower than black students,” said Dr. Reardon, “but they’re substantially outperforming by eighth grade. Hispanic students are making more progress than the national average.

 “White students score really high,” said Dr. Reardon. “The average third-grader in Evanston is scoring at the seventh-grade level nationally. The average eighth-grader is scoring at about the 12th-grade level … There’s about a four or four-and-a-half grade level difference between white students in Evanston and the nation.”

There are 11,500 school districts in the nation, and “Evanston white students’ test scores placed them at number one. There is no school district in the country where white students, on average, score higher than Evanston.”

“There’s lots of reasons that provide opportunities for white students in Evanston. The same is not true for African American and low-income students. They’re not failing. They are well above what you would predict, but they are still well below the level of scores of white and affluent students,” said Dr. Reardon.

“We have to think hard about what are the forces that create that kind of inequality and what are the ways to provide the same kind of opportunity to African American students, and Hispanic students, and low-income students,” said Dr. Reardon.

“But it’s also clear that the gaps are already there at third grade. They’re not getting appreciably smaller over third to eighth grade, but something is happening that is creating really different opportunities prior to that time. I think as a society, not just in Evanston – this is something we see nationally – we have to start thinking about how to do that.”

The above chart, prepared by Dr. Reardon, shows the grade level at which black (yellow line), Hispanic (pink line), and white students (red line), on average, performed between third and eighth grades. The dotted white line is the national average. The chart shows a significant gap between white students and black and Hispanic students at third grade.  White and black students grew at approximately the same rate between third and eighth grades. Hispanic students grew at a faster rate.

Addressing the Opportunity Gaps

When there are large achievement gaps in school districts like Evanston, “one reason is there are socio economic disparities,” Dr. Reardon said, referring to differences in household income levels and educational levels of parents. “There’s differences in the resources that families can provide their kids.”

According to District 65’s 2013 opening school report, 77% of black students enrolled in District 65 qualified for free- or reduced- fee lunch (i.e., households earning less than 180% of the poverty line), compared to 7% of white students. The vast majority of those students, 85%, qualified for free lunch, meaning they were from households earning less than 130% of the poverty line. For a family of three, that meant less than $25,389.

While there is not good data showing the income level of white families whose children attend District 65, the median income of white families in Evanston in 2015 was $150,443.

“We have enormous amount of educational inequality in the United States driven largely by differences in the kind of opportunities that children have in their early childhood and in their early elementary schools,” said Dr. Reardon. “In most places, those opportunity gaps are evident in third grade – or earlier when we have earlier data to look at. In most places, school systems are unable to undo that.”

Dr. Reardon adds, though, “But even when socioeconomic differences are zero, you still see sizeable achievement gaps, and that says, I think that American society is still structured in ways that create unequal opportunity by race. … Socioeconomic differences are not sufficient to explain racial disparities.

“There are many, many possible factors that go into that, most of which have some validity: levels of segregation, discrimination, unequal expectations or treatment in school, stereotype threat. There’s a lot of ways to explain this that aren’t dependent on socio economic differences. But writ large, I think what they say is we need to think both about race and class in American society.

 “To reduce educational inequality we need to think about strategies that involve whole communities, not just the school system,” said Dr. Reardon. “We need to think about early childhood opportunities, equality of neighborhood environments, supports for families with children to make sure they can be the best parents, the first teachers, for their children. We need to think then about how the school system can sort of integrate with those other community organizations so there’s a wrap-around focus on equity.”

He emphasized that providing enriching opportunities to African American, Hispanic, and low-income children should not be viewed as a zero-sum game. 

In early 2013, School Districts 65 and 202, together with many other community organizations, launched the Cradle to Career initiative in Evanston, which is intended to address the needs of children from birth on in a holistic fashion. More than 40 organizations have joined the initiative.

In 2015, School District 65 adopted a five-year strategic plan that contains many initiatives to address students’ needs in a holistic fashion and in partnership with community organizations. In 2016, District 65 adopted an equity statement, and it is currently developing an equity policy.

Rising Income Gaps

In an  essay entitled, “No Rich Child Left Behind,” published in the New York Times in 2013, Dr. Sean Reardon says, “Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor.”

Dr. Reardon says the income gap is not growing because test scores of poor students are declining or because schools are in decline. He also says that data shows that schools are not causing the gaps. Rather he notes that children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school.

Dr. Reardon says the issue boils down to this: “The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.

He says the rich-poor academic achievement gap is explained in part by the rising income inequality, but says, “It’s not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it’s that they are using it differently.

“High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time, and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.”

“We’re also slow to understand what’s happening, I think, because the nature of the problem — a growing educational gap between the rich and the middle class — is unfamiliar.”

As a society, Dr. Reardon suggests, “Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born.” He suggests that communities invest more in early childhood programs, and in programs that promote early cognitively stimulating experiences.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...