Case Study

Investigating performance gaps between racial-ethnic groups controlling for socioeconomic variables in secondary schools in Maryland, U.S.A

Lolayemi Charles
Publication Year:
July 27, 2020
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education

Executive Summary

A study conducted by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) found that in states where racial socioeconomic disparities are near zero, achievement gaps persisted. This observation suggests the existence of racial-ethnic achievement gaps not rooted in socioeconomic differences. The purpose of this study was to determine if this trend held true in Maryland, the wealthiest state in the United States with one of the best public school education systems in the country. To determine whether racial-ethnic achievement gaps persisted when controlled for socioeconomic variables, academic performance on Mathematics and English state exams were analyzed between schools and school districts with relatively high and low densities of students coming from low-income backgrounds. The absolute difference in means was calculated to determine the relative performance of students within each racial-ethnic group to the school averages, and students within other racial-ethnic groups. It was found that in schools where there is a relatively high density of students coming from low-income backgrounds, that gaps in performance outcomes persisted between White and Asian students and non-Asian minority students. This trend was also observed in schools with a low-density of students coming from low-income backgrounds. The observations provide further evidence that education inequality is not solely determined by socioeconomic disparities, but rather, it encompasses many variables that disproportionately affect non-Asian minority students and contribute to the widening achievement gap in the United States.


Materials and Methods

To measure gaps in performance outcomes (also known as achievement gaps) in the two counties of interest, the percent of students displaying proficiency between racial-ethnic groups was retrieved for the 2018-2019 school year from the Maryland Public Schools Report Card: a database which is published by the state department of education. The study examined the percentages of the student population that are proficient in English and Mathematics based on the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program (MCAP) state exams. Within each school district, two public secondary schools with different proportions of low-income students were used for data retrieval and analysis. The school with a relatively higher proportion of students from low-income backgrounds was identified as the “high-density” (HD) school, while the school with the relatively lower proportion of students from low-income backgrounds was identified as the “low-density” (LD) school. According to the U.S. News and World Report, the percentage of students coming from low-income or economically disadvantaged backgrounds in the HD and LD Howard County schools was 37 percent and eight percent, respectively. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, the percentage of students coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in the HD and LD Baltimore City schools chosen was 77.3 percent and 42 percent, respectively.                

The study examined performance gaps on three levels, the first of which is the difference in achievement between racial-ethnic groups within the HD and LD schools. The second level examined achievement gaps within the district by comparing the performance of racial-ethnic groups in the HD school with its pair in the LD school within the same county. The third level examined achievement gaps between the school district with a higher density of low-income students (BCPSS) and the school district with a lower density of low-income students (HCPSS). In Howard County, the percentage of low-income students is determined by how many students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In BCPSS, the percentage of low-income students is based on “direct certification for programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance” to account for under-reported low-income families (“District Profile”, 2019).

To compare the relative rates of proficiency between racial-ethnic groups, each proficiency percentage was compared to the school average (SA) of students displaying proficiency based on their Mathematics and English state exams. Depending on how much above or below the school average students displayed proficiency, their relative percentage was assessed using an ordinal Likert scale (Table 1). This assessment was used to contextualize how students within each racial-ethnic group performed in comparison to each other.


Table of the Likert scale used in this study
Table 1 (above) displays the Likert scale by which the relative proficiency percentages of each racial-ethnic group within schools were compared. This scale follows the same pattern for percentages below the school average. 


Key Findings:

  • Gaps in performance outcomes persisted between racial-ethnic groups in schools with a high-density of economically disadvantaged students and a low-density of economically
  • Black/African- American students consistently displayed proficiency below school averages ranging from slightly below school averages in High-Density Baltimore City Public Schools to extremely below school averages in Low-Density Howard County Public Schools.
  • Hispanic/Latino students displayed proficiency below school averages in all investigated schools except for within the Low-Density Baltimore City Public School.
  • White students in high-density schools consistently displayed proficiency rates that were moderate-extreme to extremely above average in both their English and mathematics state exams.
  • In schools that had a relatively high-density of economically disadvantaged students, the gap in proficiency rates was higher between non-Asian minority students and White students, than in schools with a low-density of economically disadvantaged students. 



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