New Research Brief: The Excellence Gap is Growing

The Widening Excellence Gap

Policymakers, researchers, and school leaders are heavily focused on closing the educational attainment gap between students from higher-income and lower-income families. This is critical work, but by focusing almost exclusively on basic standards — whether students are meeting proficiency levels on state tests or graduating from high school on time — it too often ignores gaps at the highest end of achievement. At the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, we believe the country should not only focus on the proficiency gap but, also on what we and other scholars call “the excellence gap.”

Because students from higher-income families have more educational opportunities, greater access to resources, and higher quality instruction, they’re more likely than their peers from lower-income families to reach the highest levels of academic performance. In fact, our new research found that the excellence gap is not only substantial, but growing. This is cause for significant concern if we are committed—as we should be—to ensuring that talented students with financial need realize their potential at the same rates as their better-resourced peers.

To better understand trends in the excellence gap, the Cooke Foundation examined student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — the gold standard for primary and secondary school achievement — with a focus on students earning the “Advanced” standard on the test. In both reading and math — at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade levels—the percentage of students from higher-income families achieving an “Advanced” score is much higher than the percentage of those from lower-income families doing so. And the gap has widened substantially since 1996, when the NAEP was first administered.

At best (in 12th grade math), the size of the gap remained the same. At worst (in 8th grade math), the excellence gap more than quadrupled in size, from 3 to 13 percentage points. We can see from the data that the primary driver of this growing excellence gap is the increased performance of students from more affluent families. Students from lower-income families are scoring at the “Advanced” level at equal or slightly greater rates than they did 20 years ago. But especially in math, the “Advanced” performance of students from higher-income families has soared. (In this case, a rising tide has not raised all boats.)

Students with financial need could have had these impressive gains as well—if they had benefitted from the same opportunities and resources as their more affluent peers. That so many of these students over the past 20 years were unable to realize their potential is a great loss for these talented students and the nation.

To learn more about the excellence gap, download the research brief or visit We hope this will serve as a quick but valuable reference for advocates working to close the excellence gap — and ultimately, to support all talented students with financial need in realizing their academic potential.