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Stanford study finds widening gap between rich and poor students

Analysis of standardized tests over a 50-year period shows the achievement gap between rich and poor has grown steadily.

L.A. Cicero Portrait of Sean Reardon

'It's harder to be poor in America than it used to be,' says Stanford researcher Sean Reardon.

It's long been known that the better off your family is, the better you tend to do in school.

Yet despite this knowledge – and programs to help level the playing field – the classroom achievement gap between rich and poor students has grown steadily over the past half-century, according to research by Sean Reardon, associate professor of education at Stanford.

"We had expected the relationship between family income and children's test scores to be pretty stable over time. It's a well-known fact that the two are related," Reardon said. "But the fact that the gap has grown substantially, especially in the last 25 years, was quite surprising, striking and troubling."

Reardon's study examined standardized test scores from 12 data sets beginning in 1960 and ending in 2007.

He compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income to children from families in the 10th percentile. The study was conducted in 2008, when families in the top bracket earned about $160,000 and families in the lower earned about $17,500.

Reardon found that the gap in test scores between the higher income and low-income children has grown by about 40 percent and is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

"It means that it's harder and harder to achieve the American dream that says it doesn't matter where you start, as long as you work hard you can rise above," Reardon said.

He said there is not just one reason for the widening gap.

"Usually when there is a big trend, there are a lot of factors going into it that are reinforcing what is happening," he said.

Reardon mentioned that higher income families are investing more money and time in their children than ever before. This can translate into extra classes and activities, or tutors.

There is also more segregation between the rich and poor, Reardon noted.

"If you have money, generally your neighbors have money, which means you probably have access to better child care and preschools, and better elementary schools, parks and libraries," he said.

Cuts to social programs over the past several decades also may have had an effect, Reardon said.

"It's harder to be poor in America than it used to be," he said. "Some aspects of the social safety net have gotten weaker, and programs to help families through hard times have been dismantled."

As far as solutions, Reardon suggested early childhood interventions might be the most reasonable way to start bridging the gap.

"The socioeconomic differences in literacy and math skills are already large before children enter kindergarten; it's likely to be easier to prevent them than to remedy them after children start school," he said. "But we should also work to make sure the elementary, middle and high schools are providing children with equal opportunities to learn once they enter school."

The study was published as a chapter in a research book titled Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances.

Media Contact

Sean Reardon, School of Education: (650) 736-8517, sean.reardon@stanford.edu

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, brooke.donald@stanford.edu