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Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: Can an Early Start Lead to a Better Finish?

Last updated July 13, 2023

By Kelly Gregory

July 13, 2023

As we highlighted in our last post, when we interpret school report card ratings, it is important that we consider the ways in which various factors—including the overall socioeconomic status (SES) of a school’s population—may be affecting a school’s scores. What further skews school ratings—and inequitable outcomes—is the amount of access to out-of-school support and learning opportunities that students from different SES backgrounds have.

Data consistently show that students from low SES backgrounds are more likely to lag behind their more advantaged peers academically; they also are less likely to graduate from college. While trends in the data point to disparities in achievement, research has shown that these discrepancies are due to gaps in opportunities, rather than differences in ability. Educational researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings has argued that students from impoverished backgrounds experience fewer opportunities—both inside and outside of school—due to differences in their families’ educational experiences, health status, geographic location, and economic mobility opportunities, among other factors.

As researchers and policymakers have examined ways to help narrow the opportunity gap, one solution has repeatedly demonstrated positive effects: access to quality early childcare and education. A study published in 2021 by the Society for Research in Child Development suggests multiple benefits of quality early learning experiences, including reduced disparities between low- and higher-income children’s educational attainment and financial earnings later in life. Multiple studies have indicated that students from low SES households are less likely to develop foundational skills for reading acquisition, but access to quality early learning environments that promote language and literacy growth has been shown to positively influence these students’ future reading achievement.

But while early childhood education offers possibilities for narrowing the achievement gap, it isn’t the only enrichment opportunity that factors into children’s overall educational outcomes. Research has shown that afterschool and summer learning opportunities also play a significant role in student success. Economically disadvantaged students experience greater regression during the summer months, sometimes falling several months behind their more advantaged peers. The ability to participate in both summer and afterschool learning programs has been shown to positively affect academic and social outcomes for low income students, often increasing the likelihood that these students will achieve academic success in future years. While efforts should focus on preventing the achievement gap from developing to begin with, offering additional educational opportunities once students begin school can also be beneficial.

As school leaders and policymakers continue to look for ways to more fairly assess the performance of individual schools, addressing the SES opportunity gap will be an important piece of the puzzle. Considering approaches that may be implemented before students begin their first day of Kindergarten is vital; however, it is equally important that opportunities are offered to students both during and after the school day once they begin their school careers. In laying the groundwork for a more equitable school assessment process, we must address the gaps between each student’s starting line.

Because poverty is a complex problem, mitigating its effects on our most vulnerable students—and their schools—will require creative and multifaceted solutions. In our final two posts we will examine how we can move towards a more equitable school ratings process through policies and programs that point us toward increased opportunities for all students.

Read the next post in this series: Making the Grade: The Quest for Quality Measures

Other posts in this series:

Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: A Series on the Complexities of School Report Cards

Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: The Socioeconomic Achievement Gap

Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Partnerships and Projects and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at