To address achievement and attainment gaps, we need a better understanding of educational opportunity

Publication Date:

May 05, 2020

Topic:

Education

Educators, policymakers, parents, and the public frequently rate schools on students’ educational achievement and attainment. However, such information presents an incomplete picture of the school experience if students’ access to educational resources and opportunities is not considered. To improve educational equity, education officials and school communities need better information about the inputs of educational opportunity and the outcomes of educational achievement and attainment. And although it can be difficult to reduce gaps in achievement and attainment, education officials often have policy options to reduce disparities in opportunity.

New resources from Child Trends and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine emphasize the importance of considering educational opportunity and attainment together to better support the nation’s students. Educational opportunity sets the stage for educational achievement and attainment by providing the contexts and resources to promote student success. These include a wide variety of academic and nonacademic supports, such as a safe and supportive school climate, experienced teachers, and rigorous academic courses.

The unequal distribution of access to educational opportunity fuels disparities in educational outcomes by income, race, and ethnicity. Larger societal issues such as income inequality and residential segregation contribute to these disparities. Schools serving children from low-income families tend to have access to fewer books, course offerings, and experienced teachers than schools serving children from higher-income families. Most schools in high-poverty neighborhoods have concentrated populations of students who live in poverty. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be enrolled in schools serving large proportions of low-income students than non-Hispanic White students.

Access to educational opportunities can also vary within schools. Students belonging to racial, ethnic, and linguistic minority groups are treated differently than their peers. For example, Black students and students with disabilities experience disproportionately high rates of exclusionary discipline. Disparities in opportunities—both within and between schools—contribute to between-group differences in educational outcomes.

Despite the importance of educational opportunity to achievement and attainment, standardized test scores and graduation rates are still the most commonly used measures to examine students’ educational achievement and attainment and evaluate school quality. Fortunately, this emphasis on using student outcome data alone to understand school quality is beginning to shift in research, federal policy, and materials to educate parents about neighborhood schools. Relying on achievement measures without considering the educational opportunity available within schools risks under-serving students who have great potential but lack the resources they need to succeed and thrive. Concurrently highlighting disparities in educational opportunity and attainment helps point policymakers to key explanations for the disparities in attainment and to possible interventions for improvement.

Policymakers and other education stakeholders cannot begin to address disparities in students’ educational attainment without measuring and addressing disparities in their access to educational opportunity. In order to improve educational attainment outcomes—and equity in those outcomes—we must invest in educational opportunity.


Natalie Nielsen, PhD, is a senior program officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Monitoring Educational Equity report identifies a set of key indicators to measure the extent of disparities in the nation’s elementary and secondary education system. To provide a full picture of educational equity, the report includes (1) indicators that measure disparities in students’ academic achievement and attainment outcomes and engagement in schooling; and (2) indicators that measure equitable access to resources and opportunities, including the structural aspects of school systems that may affect opportunity and exacerbate existing disparities in family and community contexts.

Child Trends’ Mapping the Link Between Life Expectancy and Educational Opportunity is an interactive data tool providing information on the educational opportunity available at every public high school in the country, as well as life expectancy information for adolescents in surrounding neighborhoods. Policymakers can use this tool to identify areas with co-occurrence of low levels of educational opportunity and life expectancy to target for additional support.