Widening Gaps: A Result of COVID’s Discrimination

The Pandemic’s Effect on Education

Design by Payton Kim

As schools scramble to work toward reopening in the fall, they are faced with many different concerns. Educators and health officials alike are wrestling with the prospects of remote learning or altered in person education as they attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The virus threatens to derail the structure of education as we know it and impact the health of students. The pandemic poses an additional threat to the achievement of students – specifically the achievement of low-income, Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic students. 

Educational Achievement Gap

Since 1970, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been monitoring trends in students’ standardized reading and math scores.  Every few years nationally representative data is collected from 9-, 13-, and 17- year olds as a way to track growth in educational achievement over time. This data has exposed significant gaps in achievement between high-income and low-income, white and Black, white and indigenous, and white and Hispanic students. 

Graph by Valerie Speirs

The graph above displays trends in eighth-grade reading scores as provided by the NAEP. White students consistently score higher than Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students not only in this category, but at all grade levels and tested subjects.

Since 1990, improvements in the scores of non-white students have begun to lessen the achievement gap, but the pace in which this gap lessens is stalling. Though white-Black, white-Hispanic, and white-Indigenous gaps have decreased since 1990, educational achievement disparities between these races are still notable. Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis explains that though these gaps have decreased over time, they are still very large with standard deviations ranging from 0.5 to 0.9. Furthermore, while the national average suggests that gaps have declined since 1990, this is not true in all states. Between 2003-2013, twenty-one states reported no significant decrease in white-Black achievement gaps and twenty-eight reported no significant decrease in white-Hispanic gaps. Four states – Maine, Vermont, Colorado, and West Virginia – have experienced widening gaps. Furthermore, across the nation, gaps between low-income and high-income students show signs of virtually no reduction.

Though white-Black, white-Hispanic, and white-Indigenous gaps have decreased since 1990, educational achievement disparities between these races are still notable.

The Root of the Problem

Looking at the NAEP’s results as simply gaps in success or intelligence between different demographics of students, however, undermines the existence of the systemic problems that caused the gaps in the first place. Gaps in opportunity are the root cause of achievement gaps.

Gaps in opportunity are the root cause of achievement gaps.

In 1954, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case decided that “separate but equal” education was inherently unequal. However, following this decision schools did not simply become integrated. In the south, integration of schools was met with staunch opposition. In northern cities, desegregation processes were hindered when a Supreme Court case stuck down desegregation policies that would integrate students across district lines. Harmful racist zoning and mortgage policies along with the “white flight” subjected segregated non-white schools to higher rates of poverty which still persists today.

Today, though not by law, many schools are still segregated. According to the New York Times, “more than half of the nation’s schoolchildren are in racially concentrated districts, where over 75 percent of students are either white or nonwhite.” This continuation of segregation and the unequal school funding that accompanies it are direct causes of the achievement gaps. Studies have shown that non-white school districts recieve $23 billion less in funding than white school districts, despite serving the same number of students. School district borders ensure that predominantly white districts receive funding through property taxes while non-white districts in poverty fall behind, unable to generate the revenue. This lack of funding has a direct impact on resources allocated to these schools. They are less likely to have updated textbooks, adequate technology, tech training, and tutoring options. Non-white and low-income students are also more likely to be taught by unlicensed and unqualified teachers. Systemic racism imbedded within U.S. schools and the perpetuation of segregation strips adequate funding and resources away from many non-white and low-income students, causing the achievement gap.

The existence of the racial and income achievement gaps are part of a harmful cycle. Students in underfunded schools who are victims of systemic racism score lower on achievement tests. Because of these low scores, schools receive less funding, teachers are paid less or laid off, students are denied resources, and the cycle continues. 

Design by Payton Kim
Covid-19 and Student Achievement

Unfortunately, research shows that COVID-19 will likely impact the achievement of students, especially low-income, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students. In the midst of a global pandemic, many schools have turned to online learning instead of face to face classroom education. Studies – including Stanford University’s Online Charter School Study – have shown that online learning is not as conducive to academic growth as in person learning. Stanford’s study found that this is particularly true for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students who experience lower academic growth rates online than white students. With online learning due to COVID, it is likely that certain demographics of students will fall even further behind regarding academic achievement.

Many factors also impact whether or not students are able to log in for online instruction. Stable internet connection, quiet work space, parental guidance, adequate computer skills, and access to a device all play a role in determining students’ ability to participate in online classes. While 90% of high-income students have been found to regularly log on to online instruction during the pandemic, only 60% of low-income students have been found to do so. This number holds consistent at 60% in predominantly non-white school districts as well. Due to the lack of resources that are provided for these students and their inability to succeed during online instruction, achievement gaps will likely increase further.

COVID-19 may also increase drop out rates for the same students who are affected by the achievement gap. Black, Hispanic, and Indegenous students already have significantly higher dropout rates than white students. These particular students may be faced with hardships at home that prevent them from returning to school. Such hardships include sickness, becoming the primary caregiver for a family member, or the loss of income. Black individuals are more at risk for losing their job due to the pandemic with 39% of jobs held by Black Americans at risk compared to 34% of jobs held by white Americans at risk. A student may be tasked with supporting their family after a parent or sibling loses their job, causing them to drop out. The chance of sickness is also a much more serious threat for some minority groups. Black and Indigenous individuals are five times more likely than a white person to contract COVID-19 and Hispanic individuals are four times more likely. All of these factors may impact a student’s ability to participate in school or the decision for a student to drop out.

Systemic issues imbedded in the U.S. education system have perpetuated discrimination against Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and low-income students. The lack of resources that these students receive has caused a significant gap in achievement scores which only prolongs the cycle of oppression. The impact of COVID-19 on these individuals could be detrimental if particular focus is not put on catering to the needs of these students. Attention, funding, and resources need to be directed towards potentially at-risk students in order to mitigate the possible effects of COVID-19 on education.

Edited by Nidhi Talasani

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