Math & Science Achievement Gaps for Minority Students

David Grissmer
Meeting Materials

A contentious debate is occurring in the educational community over the role in pre-school and kindergarten of early direct academic instruction vs. a less structured environment incorporating more play. New research is addressing this question by showing that structured play with arts & crafts and games may build foundational skills that are critical to later math achievement. Skill deficits in these foundational skills may be the source of math achievement gaps for children at risk that are present at pre-school and continue throughout schooling. Such gaps are one contributor to the low incidence of such children in STEM learning and careers. This presentation will focus on recent research that may help to explain why so little progress has been made closing achievement gaps and a new direction for closing gaps.

Closing math/science achievement gaps between children from advantaged and disadvantaged families and from different racial/ethnic groups has been a primary objective of national and state educational policies over the last 25 years. Limited progress has been made. Over the past 21 years, 4th grade math gaps have narrowed by about 20% and 8th grade even less. At the present rate, it would take over 100 years to eliminate gaps.

The educational policies adopted over the past 25 years to address achievement gaps have included (1) teaching math earlier, (2) spending more time on math by reducing time on other subjects and activities, (3) raising the quality of math instruction with better curriculum and higher quality teachers, (4) establishing math standards for grades 3-8 linked to annual testing and teacher accountability, and (5) intense remediation for lower scoring students. The limited success of these policies suggests that their rationale and assumptions should be examined.

The achievement gaps are substantial, and the population of students in groups with gaps is large and expected to become a larger share of the U.S. student population and future labor force. Approximately 50% of 8th grade students are considered advantaged (not eligible for free lunch, white or Asian students) and score significantly higher than the remaining 50% of students who are minority and/or disadvantaged. No other developed nation has a large achievement gap based on demographic characteristics for such a substantial part of their population. These gaps are one factor in our mediocre international ranking in math, and for the low involvement of disadvantaged children in STEM learning and careers.

Math achievement gaps at 8th grade are similar to gaps at kindegarten entry, suggesting that much of the later gaps are formed before school entry and are not primarily caused by schools. Rather, achievement gaps may be linked to deficits in at least three early-developing skills that are usually thought of as being peripheral to math learning. These skills are executive function, visuo-spatial, and fine motor skills. These skills have been linked to later math achievement through longitudinal surveys and neuroscience research. Neuroscience evidence suggests that learning these skills builds neural networks that are later used in math learning and performance. Disadvantaged children have large deficits in these skills.

A recent experimental intervention that focused on building these skills for K-1 children at high risk through structured play with popular arts & crafts and games improved these three skills and also improved math scores. Math scores improved even though there was no implicit or explicit math instruction in the intervention. The results suggest that increasing STEM participation may involve providing structured play opportunities either prior to school entry or in pre-K or K curricula rather than through more direct and earlier math instruction. The results also suggest that remediating poor math performance through increased math instruction (drill and kill) likely has limited effectiveness unless these deficits in foundational skills are addressed.

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