In Reversal, Kindergarten Readiness Gaps Narrow

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Victoria Oms,
(202) 238-3233

In Reversal, Kindergarten Readiness Gaps Narrow
Growing parental involvement in early learning may be helping close gap

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 26, 2016 ─ In a sharp reversal of a decades-long trend, the gap in kindergarten academic readiness between high- and low-income students narrowed by 10 percent to 16 percent between 1998 and 2010, according to new research published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Over the previous two decades, the academic achievement gap for cohorts of children born in the mid-1970s and mid-1990s had grown by about 40 percent.

For their study, Sean F. Reardon, the professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, and Ximena A. Portilla, a research associate at MDRC, used nationally representative data from the National Center for Education Statistics to compare the reading, writing, and math skills of roughly 17,000 incoming kindergarten students in 2010 to those of about 20,000 students who entered in 1998. To examine the income gap, the authors compared students from families at the 10th and 90th percentiles of the income distribution.

“Given that income inequality in the United States has continued to rise in the 2000s, we expected that the gap in school readiness would also continue to grow, but instead it has narrowed,” said Reardon. “This suggests that the income achievement gap is malleable; it can be reduced.”

The study also found that between 1998 and 2010, the white-Hispanic gap in kindergarten readiness narrowed by about 14 percent. The white-black readiness gap appears to have narrowed as well, but the margin of error was too wide for the study to conclude so with certainty.

Unlike income achievement gaps, the white-black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps have declined considerably over the last four decades. The recent narrowing of the kindergarten racial readiness gaps described by Reardon and Portilla represented a continuation of this trend.

Reardon and Portilla noted that other data—from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—show that the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps in fourth-grade test scores likewise narrowed between the same cohorts of children. The NAEP data do not include information on students’ family income, so it is not clear if the narrowed income gaps in kindergarten persisted.

Nonetheless, “racial academic achievement gaps in fourth grade declined at roughly the same rate as kindergarten entry gaps,” said Reardon. “This suggests that the primary source of the reduction in racial achievement gaps in fourth grade is the reduction in kindergarten readiness gaps, not a reduction in the rate at which gaps change between kindergarten and fourth grade.”

Despite the narrowing of kindergarten readiness gaps in recent years, they remain large. The authors noted that, at the rates that gaps declined in the last 12 years, it would take another 60 to 110 years for them to be completely eliminated.

Based on research from another AERA Open article published today, Reardon said that changes in parental involvement in education may have contributed to the change in income-based and race-based kindergarten readiness gaps.

Findings from that study—conducted by Daphna Bassok at the University of Virginia, Jenna E. Finch at Stanford University, RaeHyuck Lee at NYU Shanghai, Jane Waldfogel at Columbia University, and Reardon—indicate that between 1998 and 2010, families significantly increased the amount of time they spent reading with children, taking them to museums, exposing them to educational games on computers, and engaging in other in-home and out-of-home activities that help children learn.

Although these increases occurred among low- and high-income children, in many cases the biggest changes were seen among the lowest-income children. The results indicate narrowing but still large gaps in parental investment during early childhood.

“One likely explanation for the across-the-board increase in parents’ investing in their young children’s learning is that parents today are just far more aware of the unique importance of the early childhood years in shaping their children’s development,” said Bassok, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. “It also may be that the increase in parent-child interactions among low-income families has been driven, in part, by the shift of low-income children out of preschool programs and into parental care during the economic recession.”

To read “Recent Trends in Income, Racial, and Ethnic School Readiness Gaps at Kindergarten Entry,” click HERE. To speak with study author Sean Reardon, please contact Tony Pals at or Victoria Oms at

To read “Socioeconomic Gaps in Early Childhood Experiences: 1998 to 2010,” click HERE. To speak with study author Daphna Bassok, please contact Tony Pals at or Victoria Oms at

Both papers are part of a collection of articles on the special topic “Family Socioeconomic Background and Educational Mobility,” published in AERA Open. Current and forthcoming articles in this collection can be accessed HERE.

About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook and Twitter.


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