Most students want to go to college and trust that their schools are helping them get there. They believe that if they show up, do what is asked of them, and earn good grades they will be ready for college. But the work they are given often does not hold them to a high enough standard, according to a new study.

The study was conducted by TNTP, an organization working to end educational inequality. They observed 4,000 students across five school districts and found that 95% of students have aspirations of attending college. Most students are doing the work that they think they need to get there. Almost 80% of students were enrolled in courses categorized as “standard, mid-level, or rigorous” — courses they believed would help them get accepted into four-year colleges or universities. And 80% of students earned As, Bs, and Cs in their English and math classes.

Students have failed to reach their academic goals “not because they couldn’t learn what they needed to reach them, but because they were rarely given a real chance to try.”

And yet, while students held up their end of the bargain — by taking the “right” courses and passing those courses — their schools did not. The study found that:

  • While students succeeded on more than two-thirds of their assignments, they only met grade-level standards 17% of the time on those exact same assignments. They can’t master challenging material because their assignments rarely give them a chance to try it.  
  • In their four core subjects — English, math, science, and social studies — the average student spent almost three-quarters of their time on assignments that were not on grade level. That means they’re missing out on more than six months of learning in a single school year.

These findings present a new perspective on the “achievement gap.” As the report concludes: students have failed to reach their academic goals “not because they couldn’t learn what they needed to reach them, but because they were rarely given a real chance to try.”

Almost 40% of classrooms with mostly students of color never handed out one grade-level assignment, compared to only 12% of classrooms with mostly white students.

This makes a significant difference, particularly for students of color.

  • Almost 40% of classrooms with mostly students of color never handed out one grade-level assignment, compared to only 12% of classrooms with mostly white students.
  • White students earning Bs in their classes were almost as likely to have met grade-level standards as students of color who earned As.
  • Students of color are misled by inflated grades that suggest they are on track, even when they are not. Only 30% of students of color who earned an A in their Advanced Placement (AP) classes went on to pass their AP exam compared to 78% of white students.

The report also found stark evidence of a belief gap. In classrooms with mostly Black or Latino students, expectations often depended on a teacher’s race: when teachers shared this same race or ethnicity, 66% had high expectations for their students. When teachers didn’t share the students’ race or ethnicity, only 35% had high expectations, even when these students had the same levels of prior achievement.  

Based on this data, the report argues the “achievement gap” is really a result of “the decisions adults make, consciously and unconsciously, about which students get what resources. It’s a gap of our own design.” Students of color are not achieving less — they are being given less by a school system that doesn’t believe they can handle more challenging work.

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Read the next post in our College Readiness Series: What is the California School Dashboard?