The Reading Gap Between the Top and Bottom Has Gone Up. Or Maybe It’s Gone Down.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

I finally got around to reading last week’s New York Times story about the widening education gap between high and low-income students. The chart on the right tells the story: according to research by Sean Reardon, the gap in reading performance between black and white children has declined by about one grade level since 19701 (one “unit” on the chart is three grade levels). At the same time, the gap between rich and poor has gone up by nearly two grade levels:

“With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there’s a good chance the recession may have widened the gap,” Professor Reardon said….One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.

This all seems pretty believable, but it’s a little odd nonetheless. Here’s another chart, this time from the long-term NAEP test, showing reading performance among 9-year-olds at the top and bottom of the performance spectrum:

These two charts aren’t necessarily contradictory. One shows income levels and the other shows performance levels. Still, common sense suggests that the top percentiles of performance are mostly made up of high-income kids while the lowest percentiles are mostly made up of low-income kids. And on the performance chart, the gap hasn’t been growing at all. In 1971, the gap between the top 10% and the bottom 10% was 108 points (on a scale where ten points is roughly one grade level). In 2008 the gap was down to 94 points. The gap shrunk by about one and a half grade levels during the exact same period that Reardon says the income gap increased by about one and a half grade levels. If you compare the top 25% to the bottom 25% you see about the same thing.

So….I dunno. As I said, these are two different measurements, and the NAEP test doesn’t break down scores by income. But it still seems surprising that there’s such a difference. At the very least, I wish the Times had explored this and tried to explain it.

1Note that the Reardon chart is by birth year. So look at the numbers in 1960 to see the gap between 9-year-olds in 1970.

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate