Study Shows Narrowing Gap in Academic Readiness Between High- and Low-Income Kindergarteners


A new study by Sean F. Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, and Ximena A. Portilla, Research Associate in Family Well-Being and Child Development at MDRC, shows that “despite widening income inequality, increasing income segregation, and growing disparities in parental spending on children,” the gap in academic readiness between kindergarteners from high- and low-income families is narrowing. Between 1998 and 2010, the study shows, the gap narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. And while still large, this finding reflects a dramatic reversal of an earlier trend.

The study — “Recent Trends in Income, Racial, and Ethnic School Readiness Gaps at Kindergarten Entry” — which was published on August 26 by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in its peer-reviewed journal AERA Open, was reported in publications including The Washington Post, The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, and The Atlantic.

Reardon and Portilla’s research is based on newly available, nationally representative data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The researchers compared the reading and math skills of about 17,000 incoming kindergarten students in 2010 with 20,000 students from 1998, looking at families in the 10th and 90th percentiles of income distribution, “to describe the trends in the magnitude of racial/ethnic and income gaps in math and reading skills” among these children and see whether earlier trends in achievement gaps by income level have persisted among more recent cohorts. Much of the earlier evidence on academic achievement gaps is based on math and reading tests for students in the third through twelfth grades, with little emphasis on income disparities in children’s behavioral school readiness , so Reardon and Portilla’s analysis provides new information on gap trends at kindergarten entry, as well as on measures of self-control, approaches to learning, and externalizing behavior. In addition to the narrowing gap by income level, the study finds, school readiness gaps between white and Hispanic kindergarteners and, to a lesser extent, between white and black kindergarteners have also narrowed. The improvements in both the racial/ethnic gap and the income gap appear to persist at least into the fourth grade.