Narrowing Achievement Gaps for At-Risk Students

Dr. Felicia Bolden
Dr. Felicia Bolden
Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership
Frustrated student with his head against a blackboard with math equations written on it.

Narrowing achievement gaps for at-risk students is a phenomenon to which educators and researchers continually seek solutions to solve the ongoing disparity. Accountability policies in the No Child Left Behind Act now known as Every Student Succeeds Act by the United States Department of Education were implemented to address achievement gaps across the nation. Educational personnel and political figures work diligently to ensure every child has equal access to quality education. Accountability measures exists in the form of school reports cards and comparison models to help educators monitor and address achievement gaps, especially in Title I schools. Educators must identify barriers and implement strategies in efforts to narrow the achievement gap.

How is the Achievement Gap Defined?

According to Bloomquist (2017), “The term achievement gap refers to the observed disparity between the performance of groups of students defined by gender, race/ethnicity, ability and socioeconomic status.” Achievement gaps for at-risk students exist between subpopulations of ethnic and socioeconomic groups, students with disabilities, and students with language deficiencies. At-risk students underperform on standardized assessments in reading, math, writing, and science, which also contributes to low college enrollment rates and higher dropout rates when they are older. The achievement gap is an ongoing issue, especially for impoverished students.

What Factors Contribute to the Achievement Gap?

Factors contributing to achievement gaps can be caused by internal or external variables. Inconsistent educator collective efficacy, lack of resources, inadequate professional development, and poor accountability systems can be internal factors contributing to the achievement gap in school settings. School leaders must work to constantly improve the internal factors contributing to the achievement gap such as: school culture, climate, instruction, professional development, and school systems. All educators must be willing to have a growth mindset and learn new skills to best reach at-risk students.

According to Ornstein (2010), “What seems to count is that a large fraction of the variation in student achievement is accounted for in out of-school variables, such as the student’s community, home or peer group characteristics.” Examples of external factors are high mobility rates, poverty, and the social emotional needs of trauma impacted students. Students of poverty tend to have higher mobility rates than their more affluent counterparts. Some at-risk students may arrive to school sleep deprived and may not have adequate access to nutritional meals outside of the school setting. They also may struggle with homelessness, ADHD, PSTD, bipolar disorder, traumatic experiences, and personal instability. Despite the internal and external variables that contribute to the achievement gaps, educators can implement instructional strategies that best meet the needs of all at-risk students.

Strategies to Help Close the Achievement Gap

When educators have a collective belief of all students can achieve, instructional strategies can be implemented to help students be successful. Small group instruction, blended learning, and student ownership can significantly give at-risk students the tools they need to overcome learning obstacles when the strategies are implemented with fidelity. Implementing a variety of strategies ensures at-risk students will have access to the best instructional experiences to help them be successful.

Small group instruction individualizes the instructional delivery of subject matter content based on students’ academic needs and must also align to state standards. Groups of 5-6 students can receive more individualized supports from their teacher versus when students participate in whole group instruction. It is important for teachers to progress monitor students’ performance in small groups and make instructional adjustments to meet the needs of at-risk students. Small group instruction should also co-exist with stations to give students the ultimate opportunity to rotate through research, project-based learning, skills practice, and technology learning stations.

Using technology to implement blended learning includes face-to-face and online learning modules in the classroom. Students have instant access to virtual learning and simulated real life experiences they may not otherwise have with standard textbooks and worksheets in the classroom. Educators must be able to keep up with the growing trends of blended learning to ensure students will be able to compete globally upon post-graduation and become independent thinkers and problem solvers.

An overall strategy to help at-risk students increase their academic achievement is student ownership of learning. According to Chan, Graham-Day, Ressa, Peters, & Konrad (2014),

As students become meaningfully engaged in their learning, they gain a better understanding of learning targets, how to collect and document evidence of their learning, and how to evaluate and clarify additional learning needs, leading to the ultimate goal of improving student achievement.

Student ownership of learning includes but is not limited to project-based learning, student research, goal setting, and utilizing self and peer assessments. The use of rubrics and checklists can be helpful for students to monitor their progress as they independently learn content. Linear instructional approaches such as whole group instruction will no longer prepare students to be creative, collaborative, producers in society. Therefore, it is imperative to create a learning environment that fosters student ownership of learning for at-risk students.

Narrowing achievement gaps will continue to be at the forefront of education for years to come. Educators must be prepared to define and address factors that contribute to achievement gaps in schools across the nation and implement a variety of instructional strategies to help students succeed. Ongoing professional development and a positive learning environment for atrisk students are needed in every classroom. Overall educator collective efficacy, quality instruction, and equity are key components to effectively narrow achievement gaps. Ultimately, all students deserve to have access to an equitable education when educators purposefully and strategically work together towards a common goal.

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