3 Reasons We Have an Opportunity Gap, Not an Achievement Gap

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If you are in education, you have heard the term “achievement gap” in reference to score differentials amongst groups of students. These “groups of students” are determined by their race, linguistic background, disability status, and socioeconomic background. For instance, you will have heard people make comments such as, “There is a large achievement gap between our Black and White students,” or that “We need to close the achievement gap for English Language Learners*” While the term “achievement gap” may seem harmless and the goal to close the “achievement gap” noble, when you unpack this term further, one quickly sees that there is not an achievement gap but an opportunity gap.

Microaggressions – What are they?

The term “achievement gap” is one of many labels used in the field of education that falls under the heading of “microaggressions” Microaggressions are seemingly (but not really) small statements or actions that indirectly or subtly insult others on the basis of identity. Over time, microaggressions can cause serious health issues for those on the receiving end.

Why is the term achievement gap a microaggression? A student achievement is an accomplishment by the student. Thus, the term “achievement gap” characterizes the student. When we talk about closing achievement gaps, the implication is that there is something about the student that we need to fix. Thereore, the term “achievement gap” suggests issues with intelligence, motivation, family structure, etc. Yet, the gaps we see in test scores, college admissions, etc. are not caused by the lack of some personal characteristic on the part of our students; they are caused by a lack of opportunities. Therefore, the term we should use is “opportunity gap,” which puts the responsibility back on the adults.

Why It’s An Opportunity Gap

How do we know that there is an opportunity gap instead of an achievement gap? Isn’t everyone in the United States provided a free and appropriate public education? Let’s look at the evidence based on three different but often intersecting identity groups: language minority students, low socioeconomic status students, and racial minorities.

  1. Districts across the United States consistently deny language minority students Dual Language programs although Dual Language programs have been proven to help Emergent Bilingual students achieve scores equal and/or greater than the scores of their English speaking, monolingual peers. According to research, multilingual learners who are in Dual Language Education programs rather than in Transitional Bilingual or English Learner programs, on average, do better than monolingual, English-speaking peers on standardized, English exams. However, multilingual learners are consistently placed in Transitional Bilingual, ESL Push-In, and ESL Pull-Out programs where they, on average, score far below their monolingual, English-speaking peers. In other words, multilingual learners are often not given the educational programming (read opportunity) they need to be able to succeed academically (Thomas and Collier, 2017).
  2. Poor students who are in high poverty schools and hence, given less resources do not do as well as students in economically more integrated schools where students are provided more resources. Low Socioeconomic Status students who are in high poverty schools on average score lower than similar students who are in more affluent schools. For instance, in a 2011 study, low-income fourth graders in high poverty schools who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scored two grade-levels lower than low-income fourth graders in economically integrated schools on the same test (Palardy, 2013). Since student characteristics themselves did not change, only the overall demographics and thus, budget, of their schools, this clearly demonstrated that students in high poverty schools do not have the same opportunities as students in better resourced schools.
  3. Racial minority students do better in integrated schools; however, schools are increasingly segregated. The so-called “racial achievement gap” decreased substantially when the desegregation movement was at its height in the 1970s and 1980s and Black and Hispanic children were allowed to be in integrated schools with their White peers. The trend reversed itself as schools resegregated during the 1990’s and 2000’s (Orfield, 2001). Again, the students did not change, but the school setting and thus, the opportunities they were offered did.

Clearly, the schools and programs students are offered make a difference in students’ academic scores. Hence, the problem does not lie within the students but within the opportunities we afford them. So let’s stop calling it an achievement gap and take responsibility for the education we offer our students. It is past time we close the opportunity gap.

*The term “English Langauge Learner” was used to reflect common dialogue. Preferred terms include Multilingual Learners and/or Emergent Bilinguals.

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  1. […] The above graph by Thomas and Collier (2001-2009) is a meta-analysis of programs across the United States.  The dashed line represents the average score of monolingual, English speaking students on English Language Arts exams.  The colorful lines represent the average score of students who are identified as English Language Learners on the same exam who are in different language acquisition programs.  The space between the colored lines and the dashed line represents the opportunity gap. […]


  2. […] In order to close the opportunity gap for our Emergent Bilinguals, we need to consistently monitor our results as our students move through the program to ensure that they are on the trajectory for closing the opportunity gap.  Note that this does not mean that we are expecting students to ace an English Language Arts test in 3rd grade itself, but we expect their average scores to be where Thomas & Collier (2001-2009) demonstrate students should be based on whether they are in a One-Way or Two-Way Dual Language Program.  We should also be ensuring that growth in the Language Other Than English (LOTE) is happening with students eventually becoming balanced bilinguals. […]


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