Home / Education / Articles / How uneven educational outcomes begin, and persist, in the US

Highest educational attainment by race or ethnicity

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Education remains one of the best predictors of future economic success in the US. In 2019, the median weekly earnings among workers was $1,256 for those with a bachelor’s degree, compared to $746 for those with just a high school diploma and $592 for high school dropouts.

Americans with a college degree weather economic downturns more easily than those without. In June, unemployment among high school graduates without a college degree jumped to 12%, compared to 3.6% the previous year. Among those with a bachelor’s degree and higher though, unemployment increased to 7% (compared to 2.5% last year).

These benefits are not felt equally because educational attainment varies greatly across racial and ethnic lines. According to the US Census Bureau, 31% of Hispanic adults never completed high school, more than double any other racial or ethnic category. Only 26% of Black Americans 25 or older receive a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 40% of non-Hispanic, white students and 58% of Asian students do.

Long before graduation, factors including early education, household income gaps, and disciplinary actions affect students’ abilities to access resources and succeed in school. These elements impact racial and ethnic groups differently and contribute to these unequal educational outcomes.

Achievement gaps start in elementary school and continue through high school.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), which administers standardized tests across the country in fourth, eighth, and 12th grades, found disparities in test scores across racial and ethnic categories. As soon as the fourth grade, the average Black student fails to reach basic reading levels and scored 32 points below their average white peers; Hispanic students score, on average, 27 points lower than their white peers.

4th grade NAEP reading scores in 2017

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Similar gaps appear in math scores, with Black and Hispanic students scoring 25 and 19 points, respectively, lower than their white peers. Asians students consistently score the highest on both assessments.

4th grade NAEP math scores in 2017

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These early differences in test scores hold relatively constant throughout primary and secondary schooling, and remain so over time. From fourth to 12th grade, white students consistently score 25 to 30 points higher than Black students, and 20 to 25 points higher than Hispanic students. These gaps have persisted from 1992 to 2017, the year of the most recent data.

White-Black reading achievement gap (in points)

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White-Hispanic reading achievement gap (in points)

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Some gaps in educational outcomes between racial and ethnic groups can be connected to income

Many of these differences in educational outcomes can be attributed to differences in household income. Students in lower-income households lack the resources used by their higher-income peers, such as internet or computer access.

Among students of all racial and ethnic groups, there is a 28 and 24-point gap between fourth-grade reading and math scores, respectively, between students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch and students who are not. The sizes of these gaps are similar to the racial or ethnic gaps in test scores.

4th-grade reading scores and free-lunch eligibility

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4th-grade math scores and free-lunch eligibility

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In general, Asian households have the highest median income in the country, followed by white households, Hispanic households, and Black households. Test scores follow this same pattern. However, this pattern is not completely consistent across states and regions. Washington, DC, for instance, has the largest income gap between Black and white households nationwide—a $40,000 gap in median income—but a smaller achievement gap than average.

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The income gap between white households and Black or Hispanic households is similar in Virginia and Illinois, but the difference in test scores is much greater in Illinois. Notably, the achievement gap is universal – there isn’t a single state where the average scores of Black or Hispanic students are higher than their white counterparts — even in states with very small income gaps.

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Disciplinary actions that take students out of school disproportionately impact male minority students.

Minority students—especially male students—also receive more disciplinary actions than other groups throughout primary and secondary school, which can deter students from graduating high school. In many cases, students who are expelled or referred to law enforcement are a result of schools enforcing zero-tolerance policies. A 2013 Congressional Research Service report states that these policies have not deterred further school violence as districts hoped.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 1% of Black and American Indian male students are referred to law enforcement compared to less than 0.5% of Hispanic or white male students. Furthermore, 17% of Black male students receive at least one out of school suspension; the next highest demographic is American Indian male students at 9%.

Percent of students receiving at least one out-of-school suspension

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Out-of-school suspensions mean less classroom time, which could discourage and compound challenges for struggling students, and referrals to law enforcement can result in a juvenile record.

Racial and ethnic gaps persist among college students

Disciplinary actions and achievement gaps make it both more difficult for students to complete high school, and may make it more difficult for students to succeed in post-secondary school. While Black students graduate high school at higher rates than Hispanic students, for example, they complete college at lower rates. Only 40% of Black college enrollees graduate from college, compared to 64% of non-Hispanic white students and 74% of Asian students.

Six-year college graduation rate for 2011 cohort

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However, racial or ethnic categories are also not monoliths. In 2017, among people who identify as Hispanic, 53% of 18-24 year-old Venezuelans in the US enrolled in college, while 46% of Cubans, 35% of Mexicans, and 28% of Guatemalans did. Among Asians, 76% of Chinese between 18 and 24 years old enrolled in college, while 45% of Cambodians did.

While not all members of the same racial or ethnic group share the same economic or educational characteristics, considering the differences in data among the groups can help understand what may cause educational achievement gaps to exist.


According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), fourth Grade Proficiency in reading is defined as the ability to integrate and interpret texts and apply understanding of the text to draw conclusions and make evaluations. A Basic fourth grade reading level is being able to locate relevant information, make simple inferences, and use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion. Students should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text.

For math, fourth-grade students performing at the NAEP Basic level should show some evidence of understanding the mathematical concepts and procedures in the NAEP content areas (number properties and operations, measurement and geometry, data analysis and probability, and algebra). Fourth-grade students performing at the NAEP Proficient level should consistently apply integrated procedural knowledge and conceptual understanding to problem solving. They should be able to use whole numbers to estimate, compute, and determine whether results are reasonable. They should have a conceptual understanding of fractions and decimals; be able to solve real-world problems in all NAEP content areas; and use four-function calculators, rulers, and geometric shapes appropriately.

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