All Blog Posts

Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: The Socioeconomic Achievement Gap

Last updated July 6, 2023

By Kelly Gregory

July 6, 2023

In our previous post, we highlighted that while school report card rankings can offer insight into a school’s overall performance, they also involve the interaction of a variety of factors—the most significant of which may be the overall socioeconomic status (SES) of students in the school.

In South Carolina, schools are awarded numerical grades based on academic performance (measured by test scores) and evaluation of school environment, and these scores can heavily influence public perceptions of school quality. However, research has shown that socioeconomic factors—not teacher or school quality—may play a greater role in a school’s overall performance on standardized tests.

A closer look at the data reveals some troubling trends. Overall, the literacy skills of low SES students are 5 years behind their high SES peers by the time they enter high school, and low SES students are 20-26 percentage points behind their more advantaged peers in both reading and math proficiency. When we consider that low SES has been correlated with a higher likelihood of suspension from school, which results in decreased instructional time, and a decreased likelihood of graduating from high school, the validity of traditional school rating methods is further called into question.

This becomes especially apparent when looking at schools that are concentrated in specific geographic areas. According to a 2020 report released by the National Center for Education Statistics, 17 states have poverty rates that are higher than the national average; 13 of those 17 states are located in the south, including South Carolina. Similarly, within South Carolina, there is considerable variance in SES across the state.

Even more concerning is the lack of mobility economically disadvantaged students experience over time. Long term studies have revealed little change in how students within various SES groups have performed academically; a paper published in 2021 by the American Institutes of Research reported that, in 34 out of 50 states, there was no statistically significant change in the achievement gap over a 15-year period. Overall, a number of studies indicate that the achievement differences between low and high SES students have remained relatively unchanged since the 1950s.

These data present policymakers with the challenge: how can we fairly evaluate a school’s performance while also considering the ways in which SES can affect students’ achievement on tests? And importantly, how can we narrow the achievement gap across socioeconomic variables? When considering this second question, it is important that we examine the following:

  • What factors, if any, can we affect prior to students—particularly low SES students—entering Kindergarten and during the K-12 years?
  • How might teacher preparation and professional development factor into the equation?

In our upcoming posts in the series, we will look at how access to early childhood education, availability of afterschool and summer learning opportunities, and factors related to teacher preparation might point us toward more equitable educational outcomes for all students.

Read the next post in this series: Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: Can an Early Start Lead to a Better Finish?

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