The term “achievement gap” refers to the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. The term is often used to refer to the performance gaps between white students and minorities, or students from higher-income and lower-income backgrounds. Other subgroups for which achievement gaps may be shown include students who are learning English, students with disabilities, and male and female students.

Federal education law has focused greater attention on achievement gaps by requiring schools and districts to report test scores and other performance data by subgroups of students. The charts shown here display academic achievement gaps among various subgroups in Tennessee at the state level. The data for the charts concerning graduation rates and state assessments are taken from the annual State Report Card published by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE). For information about gaps at the district and school levels, see the Accountability tab on the State Report Card, which shows the percentage of students in each subgroup by proficiency level on state assessments. The data for the charts concerning ACT are taken from the annual ACT Profile Reports for Tennessee.

Achievement gaps are found in nearly every school district across the U.S., as shown in a recent, ongoing study by Stanford University researchers, despite more than a decade of state and federal accountability initiatives designed to close academic gaps among underserved student subgroups. Researchers found that the strongest gap predictor was the difference in poverty rates between schools with large populations of white or black and Hispanic students.1

TDOE has acknowledged that although student performance in the state has risen in the past several years among all groups, substantial gaps continue between students in historically underserved groups and their comparison groups. In grades 3-8, TDOE found that nearly 35,000 of the 450,000 students – 8 percent – tested below basic in both math and English language arts in the 2014-15 school year. All but 2,000 of these students fall into one of the four historically underserved student groups Tennessee uses in its district accountability models.2

In its plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), TDOE describes various efforts it has undertaken to improve student achievement, by “providing individualized support and opportunities for all students, with a specific focus on those who are furthest behind.”3 A few of these efforts are:

  • Expansion of a multi-tiered system of support to address both academic and nonacademic student needs. This framework, called RTI2-B, includes both Response to Instruction and RTI2 for Behavior. RTI2 is an approach that identifies students’ learning and behavioral problems early, allowing educators to intervene with targeted instruction for individual students to improve academic achievement.4 The RTI2-B framework is meant to work along with the RTI2 framework for academics, which began being implemented in schools in 2014.
  • A focus on chronic absenteeism. TDOE provides data on chronic absenteeism to assist districts and schools in prevention efforts. TDOE found that some student subgroups – including students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and African American students – tend to have higher rates of chronic absenteeism. The multi-tiered system of support framework, described above, can also be used to support individual students who are chronically absent.
  • Training concerning Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as abuse and household dysfunction, and how they can affect children’s learning and behavior. This training, completed in 2017, addressed how teachers and administrators can mitigate harm from ACEs.

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1 Sarah D. Sparks, “Study: Most School Districts Have Achievement Gaps,” Education Week, May 10, 2016, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/05/11/study-most-school-districts-have-achievement-gaps.html?qs=Study:+Most+School+Districts+Have+Achievement+Gaps (accessed March 17, 2017). Sean F. Reardon, School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps, Stanford University, April 2016, https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/wp15-12v201510.pdf (accessed May 1, 2017).
2 Tennessee Department of Education, Every Student Succeeds Act: Building on Success in Tennessee, ESSA State Plan, Aug. 24, 2017, pp. 145 and 146, https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/education/documents/TN_ESSA_State_Plan_Approved.pdf (accessed Feb. 28, 2018). The four student groups referred to here are economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, English learners, and Black/Hispanic/Native American. TDOE merges three racial subgroups for accountability purposes, but also displays information on the State Report Card for each individual subgroup. The charts in the OREA portal break out the data by each individual subgroup.
3 Tennessee Department of Education, Every Student Succeeds Act: Building on Success in Tennessee, ESSA State Plan, Aug. 24, 2017, p. 144, https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/education/documents/TN_ESSA_State_Plan_Approved.pdf (accessed Feb. 28, 2018).
4 Maurice McInerney and Amy Elledge, Using a Response to Intervention Framework to Improve Student Learning: A Pocket Guide for State and District Leaders, American Institutes for Research, May 2013, downloadable at https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED565680 (accessed Feb. 28, 2018).