Explaining the Science Achievement Gap: The Gap between Privileged and Non-Privileged Students in Science Achievement Endures. Here Are Some of the Contributing Factors, and Actions Schools Can Take

By Valadez, James R. | Leadership, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Explaining the Science Achievement Gap: The Gap between Privileged and Non-Privileged Students in Science Achievement Endures. Here Are Some of the Contributing Factors, and Actions Schools Can Take


Valadez, James R., Leadership


The National Assessment of Educational Progress provides critical information regarding the academic achievement of our nation's students. Previous research using NAEP data showed substantial gaps in science achievement between several policy-relevant groups. Since the NAEP science assessment began in 1990, males have scored higher than females, whites and Asians have outperformed African Americans and Latinos, and higher socioeconomic groups have done better than lower SES groups (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005).

Finding a conclusive explanation for these persistent gaps has proven to be elusive, however. While this study emphasized the associations between such socio-demographic factors as SES, ethnic/racial backgrounds and gender, it was not meant to point the finger at membership in "at-risk" groups as predictors of academic failure. Rather, membership in low-SES or minority groups is viewed as part of the broader explanation of interrelated factors that contribute to disappointing performances in science achievement by non-privileged groups (Van Secker, 2004; Van Secker& Lissitz, 1999).

The purpose of this study was to explore possible explanations for the enduring science achievement gap in California public schools between privileged and non-privileged students. I asked the following questions to guide the study:

1. Does science achievement vary systematically among schools?

2. To what extent do gender, race and SES account for differences in science achievement?

3. Do instruction and school environment affect the average achievement of students within the same school?

Exploring an ecological perspective

While previous research cited a preponderance of evidence regarding family background and school characteristics and their influences on science achievement, what is lacking in the literature is an integrated approach for arriving at explanations for the science achievement gap between privileged students and those labeled "at-risk." An ecological perspective opens the possibility for arriving at such an explanation. This line of inquiry specifies that when examining a student's academic outcomes, it is important to consider the influence of various social spheres, including families and schools (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Elder, 1974; Rutter; 1988; Steinberg, 1996).

Simply put, this perspective provides an integrative approach for understanding how social background affects students' experiences during their schooling. My analysis builds on Bronfenbrenner's (1979) suggestion that an essential task for researchers should be to penetrate the label of socio-demographic characteristics (race/ethnicity, gender and SES) to identify the specific elements of social structure, family background and school environment that shape the course of student achievement.

To develop an ecological framework I selected key family and school characteristics available in the NAEP dataset.

Family, home and school environment

Evidence from the literature shows the ability of parents to foster positive attitudes about science is one of the most important predictors of science achievement (Carey & Shavelson, 1988). I selected variables that modeled the interrelated sphere of family and community influences: family background variables (race, gender, parental educational attainment), home environment measures (number of books in the home), and student attitudes toward science ("I like science"). I also selected the variable "hands-on learning" to model the student's instructional experience in the classroom.

Social context

As Bronfenbrenner suggested, the interaction between factors in the child's immediate family background, school experiences and the larger social context shapes his or her development. Changes or conflict at any level will ripple throughout the other dimensions. Therefore, to study a child's development it is critical to look at the child's immediate environment (family), and his or her interaction with society (school-level variables). …

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Explaining the Science Achievement Gap: The Gap between Privileged and Non-Privileged Students in Science Achievement Endures. Here Are Some of the Contributing Factors, and Actions Schools Can Take
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