The Global Increase in the Socioeconomic Achievement Gap, 1964-2015
The existence of a “socioeconomic achievement gap”—a disparity in academic achievement between students from high- and low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds—is well-known in the sociology of education. The SES achievement gap has been documented across a wide range of countries. What is unknown in most countries is whether the SES achievement gap might be changing over time. This study combines 30 international large-scale assessments over 50 years, representing 100 countries and about 5.8 million students. SES achievement gaps are computed between the 90th and 10th percentiles of three available measures of family SES: parents’ education, parents’ occupation, and the number of books in the home. Results indicate that, for each of the three SES variables examined, achievement gaps have increased in a majority of sample countries. Yet there is substantial cross-national variation in the size of increases in SES achievement gaps. The largest increases are observed in countries with rapidly increasing school enrollments, implying that expanding access reveals educational inequality that was previously hidden outside the school system. However, gaps have also increased in many countries with consistently high enrollments, suggesting that cognitive skills are an increasingly important dimension of educational stratification worldwide.