Math, reading gaps between white, minority kindergarteners are large at start of kindergarten

August 18, 2003

Black and Hispanic children enter kindergarten with lower average levels of math and reading skills than White children, largely because of socioeconomic differences between White and minority families, according to a Penn State researcher. In addition, the gaps between Black and White students grow substantially in kindergarten and first grade, largely because of differences in the school experiences of Black and White children.

"Black children fall further behind Whites in kindergarten and first grade both in math and reading," says Dr. Sean F. Reardon, assistant professor of education and sociology and research associate with the University's Population Research Institute. "Some of this -- particularly the growth in Black-White reading gaps during the first grade year -- can be traced to differences in the schools attended by Black and White students."

Reardon presented his findings today (Aug. 17) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. The full report, "Sources of Educational Inequality: The Growth of Racial/Ethnic and Socioeconomic Test Score Gaps in Kindergarten and First Grade," is available online at

On the other hand, the study shows that the disparity in Black-White learning rates during kindergarten cannot be traced to differences in the schools attended by Black and White students, but rather is due to dissimilar learning rates of White and Black students attending the same schools, Reardon notes. Even when their families enjoy levels of income and education equal to those of Whites, Black students learn less during the kindergarten year than White students enrolled in the same school, on average.

This may be attributable to differential treatment within schools, or perhaps because Black and White students enter kindergarten with different degrees of readiness for formal, structured schooling, or possibly because they have different preschool opportunities and experiences than White students.

"Besides the growth of Black-White gaps during kindergarten, this study shows that low-income children fall further behind middle-class children in kindergarten and during the summer between kindergarten and first grade in both math and reading," says the Penn State researcher. "The poverty gap continues to widen in reading during first grade, but narrows in math during first grade. First graders in higher poverty schools actually appear to catch up a little somewhat to their middle-class counterparts in math, suggesting that compensatory education programs in the first grade may be benefiting poor children and reducing the poverty gap in math."
The study is based on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a federally funded study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. The study tracks the educational experiences of a nationally representative sample of 21,000 students from the kindergarten class of 1998-99.

Penn State

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