The 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. Yet in most countries, we do not know whether the SES achievement gap has been changing over time.
Growing concern has been expressed about disparities in science achievement between children from socioeconomically disadvantaged households and their more advantaged counterparts. These gaps have important implications for access to professional and technical careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as in health professions. Yet, surprisingly little attention has been paid to disentangling socioeconomic disparities in science achievement, despite extensive literature ad-dressing socioeconomic gaps in reading and math skills.
Family SES reflects a family’s position in the social and economic hierarchy and the resources, prestige, and privileges that derive from this position. SES is commonly measured using a single indicator, such as household income or parental educational attainment, or with a composite measure that combines information across several indictors to reflect the multiple resources that shape the experiences of children and families at different levels of the social and economic hierarchy. The number of studies focused on SES gaps in science achievement is small, particularly when compared to the exhaustive literature addressing gender gaps. The few studies that have considered SES gaps using composite measures have uncovered moderate links between SES and science skills.
Economic trends could be responsible for growing SES achievement gaps. The level of economic development is rising in most countries that participate in international assessments, implying rising standards of living and a greater capacity for public and private investment in education and child well-being. However, it is not clear that a higher level of development leads to smaller SES achievement gaps; in fact, the reverse may be true. family SES was a more important predictor of student achievement in more developed countries, a correlation that still appears weakly present in PISA 2015 results (OECD 2016). When looking at changes over time, Baker and colleagues (2002) suggest that the importance of SES grew more in developing countries. These past findings imply that SES achievement gaps may increase more in lower-income than in higher-income countries, and gaps may increase more in countries experiencing more rapid growth in economic development.
Parental education is a key dimension of SES that shapes children’s academic skills development Parental education may increase parents’ human, cultural, and social capital, which can influence their childrearing knowledge, practices, beliefs, and aspirations as well as their parenting skills related to children’s science learning. For example, more educated par-ents promote child achievement by holding high educational expectations for their children, by providing more stimulating materials and activities, engaging in complex conversation, and providing higher quality of instruction.
Parental education also can influence the time that parents have to invest in children by shaping the characteristics of their employment, such as the level of employee autonomy and flexibility. Furthermore, research has shown that parental education is related not only to the time that parents spend with their children but also the quality of that time, reflected in the complexity of activities and higher levels of cognitive stimulation provided during those times.
Changing educational institutions could cause rising SES achievement gaps. A strong and consistent finding in cross-sectional comparative research is that countries with more rigid systems of curricular differentiation tend to have larger SES achievement gaps. In these studies, highly differentiated systems are those (primarily European) countries that select students at relatively young ages into academic and vocational tracks or schools. According to this work, we would expect countries that increase the rigidity of curricular differentiation or begin tracking at younger ages to experience increasing SES achievement gaps. However, it is not clear that such changes in tracking systems can explain increasing SES achievement gaps in many countries. Although increased tracking as a potential explanation for increasing SES achievement gaps in South Korea, in most other countries participating in international assessments, reforms have been toward de-tracking, such as delaying the onset of tracking or enrolling a greater share of students in the academic track