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Teens: Home Life, Student Interest Widen Achievement Gap

Teens: Home Life, Student Interest Widen Achievement Gap

by Steve Crabtree

Adults may think the only "gap" many U.S. teens are concerned about is the store at their local mall, but a recent Gallup Youth Survey* found another gap concerns teens, too -- the achievement gap. Nearly two-thirds (63%) feel closing the academic achievement gap between white and minority students is "very important." Another 27% say closing the gap is "somewhat important"; only 7% who say it is "not too important" or "not at all important."

The achievement gap was a key impetus of the No Child Left Behind law enacted in January 2002. The law requires schools to analyze test scores of minority subgroups to ensure they are keeping up with minimum academic standards. Schools in which minority students are not making adequate yearly progress are subject to sanctions and can eventually be closed. But most teen respondents believe the achievement gap is mostly related to factors other than the quality of schooling they receive.

Teens were asked how important various factors are in contributing to the achievement gap. Home life, parental involvement, and "interest on the part of the students" were each rated "very important" by slightly more than two-thirds of respondents. Far fewer say two factors originating outside the home -- community involvement and racial bias -- are very important drivers. Just 22% rate the amount of family income as a very important contributor.

National statistics tend to imply that family socioeconomic status explains a great deal of the differences in student achievement across schools. But teens may be more attuned to the influence family dynamics have on academic achievement. As a 2004 Learning From Leadership Project report noted, "At the core of family educational cultures are the assumptions, norms, and beliefs held by the family about intellectual work in general and school work in particular. The behaviors and conditions resulting from these assumptions are related to school success by a substantial body of evidence." Though families with strong educational cultures are more prevalent at higher socioeconomic levels, the report notes, such families can be found in households at every level.

Ultimately, the most important factor may be "interest on the part of the students." Both parents and schools have responsibility for helping students see how education is directly relevant to their lives. "I think there are a lot of 'in-betweeners' like me," says one teen girl from Pennsylvania. "I can be motivated, but most of the time I just don't put as much effort in as I should. Others are just driven -- they can see the future and actually grasp what it will get them. I think you just have to be able to do that."

*These results are based on Web surveys with a randomly selected national sample of 600 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted July 6 to Sept. 4, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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