The Calculus of Race and Class: A New Look at the Achievement Gap in New York City Schools

By Nicole Mader and Ana Carla Sant’anna Costa

Decades of national research have documented the “achievement gap” among students of different racial and ethnic groups as measured by their scores on standardized tests, with White and Asian students generally outperforming their Black and Hispanic peers.[1] Now, a new tool developed by the Integration Project at the Center for New York City Affairs allows parents, educators, and policymakers to see just how large that gap is among students at each of the city’s approximately 900 public elementary schools, both district and charter. It also shows how strongly and how frequently this gap is moderated by the household incomes of students, even within the same schools.

Our new interactive visualization shows how some 220,000 students in different racial or ethnic groups in grades 3-5 (the grades that participate in yearly testing) at each elementary school fared on the 2016 State math tests relative to each group’s estimated household income using census tract data.[2]  (We used the math test results because they are less highly correlated with a student’s home language than results on the English Language Arts test also administered by the State for students in grades 3-5.)

Visualization created by Karla Polo-Garcia and Arsenal. Data on individual student census tracts, racial or ethnic categories, and 2016 math scores were provided by the NYC Department of Education. Groups with fewer than 10 students are not displayed on the visualization in accordance with federal student privacy laws. See endnote ii for more details on methodology.

New York State standardized tests are scored on a four-point scale. Students with scores of “1” or “2” are judged to be performing below grade level; those with scores of “3” are considered to be at grade level; a score of “4” or better means the student is performing above grade level.

A glance at this visualization reveals that White and Asian students’ math scores were higher, but their household incomes also tend to be much higher. In the middle of our household income range, we see students of all races. Black and Hispanic students in this income bracket have test scores similar to those of White and Asian students with similar incomes, and in some cases score higher.

This visualization also illustrates the intersection of race and class in school segregation. On the right of the graph, we can see that students with household incomes above $80,000 are predominately White; moreover, nearly all the non-White students who attend schools with these White students have household incomes above $60,000, well above the $45,000 citywide average for our pool of students. On the left side of the graph, almost all students with household incomes below $30,000 are Black and Hispanic, and there are almost no White or Asian students at these schools. In short, students represented on the right side of the graph typically go to schools with some degree of racial and ethnic diversity and reap benefits from that.[3] Those benefits aren’t available to students on the left side of the graph.

At schools where students come from households with a wide range of incomes, there are typically large gaps in test scores among different ethnic groups. We found strong correlations linking the size of the income range between the highest- and lowest-income ethnic groups at each school and the size of the test score gap between them. In fact, the wider the economic range within a school, the wider these gaps become. There are, for example, more than 50 schools where students come from census tracts where annual household incomes vary by more than $25,000. At those schools, the average test score gap between the highest- and lowest-income classmates was almost a full proficiency level (one point on the four-point scale). Even at highly resourced schools like P.S. 183 Robert Stevenson in District 2, P.S./M.S. 8 Robert Fulton in District 13, and P.S. 29 John Harrigan in District 15, the lower-income Black students are performing a full proficiency level or more below their White and Asian classmates.

There are, however, schools that demonstrate high performance across economic and racial lines. Several are schools with schoolwide “Gifted & Talented” programs, which take only students who score above the 97th percentile on a citywide “G&T” entrance exam. Others include the newer Success Academy charter schools that have, in recent years, opened in upper-income neighborhoods and which, like all charter schools, accept students only via a lottery application process. Success Academy Cobble Hill, for example, has an income gap of almost $50,000 between its Black and White students, but only a 0.25 point gap between their math test scores. In fact, most Success Academy schools on this chart float above the trend line: even their schools that enroll only low-income Black and Hispanic students performed far above students with comparable incomes at other schools. The only traditional public school to stand out in a similar way was the Concourse Village Elementary School, P.S. 359, in the South Bronx.

Using the filters above the visualization, you can isolate schools with specific admissions methods, such as charter schools or G&T schools. For example, when comparing charter schools to other un-zoned schools (which also do not have geographic attendance zones, so accept only students who have applied for admission), we can see that the un-zoned schools tend to be both more racially diverse and higher-income than the charters. Schools that have both G&T and general education classes show large gaps in test scores between students of similar incomes, as indicated by the sharp vertical lines. While it’s generally true that the racial achievement gap narrows among students of similar incomes, it doesn’t in these schools. This conforms to research about schools with discrete and separate, as opposed to schoolwide, G&T programs – that the simple presence of White and higher-income students in a school building isn’t enough in and of itself to close the racial achievement gap in that school.[4]

You can also filter for specific community school districts across the city. Look, for example, at schools in District 3 on the Upper West Side, where a heated and racially charged school rezoning debate started in the 2015-16 school year. About a third of the elementary schools in District 3 have entirely lower-income Black and Hispanic students; another third are more racially balanced and span the middle range of the income scale; and the other third have predominately White and very high-income students, with smaller numbers of students from other racial groups that are also relatively high-income. With a few exceptions, the test results in District 3 comport with the overall picture our data paints.

At this point we should register two important caveats about this research. First, we recognize that relying solely on standardized test scores – and especially one year’s results – is a problematic method of determining student performance or school success. It’s a highly imperfect tool; there are many dimensions to success in school and in adult life that can’t be captured by standardized test scores. However, such scores remain the only existing tool for evaluating the relative performance of hundreds of thousands of students across the city.

Second, these findings demonstrate neither the success nor the failure of racial and socioeconomic integration in improving student classroom performance, and shouldn’t be interpreted in that light. While we’ve identified racial and income diversity within schools, that doesn’t tell anything about, for example, classroom-level integration or about how equitably teaching talent and other resources are allocated in those schools.

These questions of equity are, moreover, receiving increased attention from parents, school leaders, and policymakers in the city.  Forty-two schools, including all the elementary schools in District 1 on the Lower East Side, have now signed on to the Diversity in Admissions pilot, which allows them to set aside seats for underrepresented groups at their schools. The Department of Education also has established a set of goals and action steps for increasing racial and economic diversity in schools across the city. While they are not ambitious enough, they nevertheless represent important progress. And the City Council’s Education Committee heard testimony on the problem of school segregation last December, promising increased attention and accountability on this issue moving forward.

We are hopeful that such efforts will help bring real integration for all students that does not simply move students from school to school, but provides the resources, relationships, and other important factors that can help boost outcomes for students of all backgrounds. It’s in that spirit that we present this research.   

The Integration Project at the Center for New York City Affairs is made possible by grants from Deutsche Bank and the New York Community Trust.


Nicole Mader is a senior research fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs and a Ph.D. candidate at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy.


Ana Carla Sant’anna Costa is a quantitative research assistant at the Center for New York City Affairs and a Master’s candidate in Nonprofit Management at The Milano School.


Karla Polo-Garcia is a Design Research Assistant at the Center for New York City Affairs and a Master’s candidate in the Design and Technology MFA program at Parsons The New School for Design.


This visualization would not have been possible without the generous coding and design work donated by andrew price and brian sadecki at Arsenal.

[1] For discussions of how research and politics have framed the achievement gap throughout the last 50 years, see Aggarwal, U. (2016). The Ideological Architecture of Whiteness as Property in Educational Policy. Educational Policy, Vol. 30(1), pp. 128–152; Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), pp. 3-12; and Powers, J. M., Fischman, G. E., & Berliner, D. C. (2016). Making the Visible Invisible: Willful Ignorance of Poverty and Social Inequalities in the Research-Policy Nexus. Review of Research in Education, Vol. 40, pp. 744–776.

[2] The income estimate for each group is the average of all the median household incomes from each student’s census tract of residence. This figure came from the 2011-2015 American Community Survey, which surveys a sample of residents in each census tract over multiple years in order to provide more reliable estimates of the entire population living in that census tract. While this does not provide an exact income for each student’s family, it does give a reliable estimate of the socioeconomic context which each student lives. It also gives us a more nuanced measure than the binary measure of free lunch eligibility because it provides a continuous range of estimated incomes from $12,000 to $170,000 a year. Following US Census Bureau guidelines, we excluded any student for whom the median household income estimate had a coefficient of variation over 0.30 and all students in schools where more than 80% of students had such unreliable income estimates. Out of more than 230,000 students in grades 3-5 for whom we had a valid census tract and test score, only 8,370 or 3.6% were deleted based on these criteria. We plotted these income estimates using a logarithmic scale to make it easier to view the lower- and middle-income ranges, where the majority of student groups fell.

[3] Reardon, S.R. (2016), “School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps,” Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2(5), pp. 34–57; Kahlenberg, R. (Ed.) (2012), The Future of School Integration, The Century Foundation; Alexandra K. and Morgan, S.L. (2016), “The Coleman Report at Fifty: Its Legacy and Implications for Future 5 Research on Equality of Opportunity,” The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2(5), pp. 1-16; Weiner, R. (2007), “Opportunity Gaps: The Injustice Underneath Achievement Gaps in Our Public Schools,” North Carolina Law Review, 85(5), 1315-1418; Ready, D. and Chu, E.M. (2015), Sociodemographic Inequality in Early Literacy Development: The Role of Teacher Perceptual Accuracy. Early Education and Development, 26(7), pp 970-87.

[4] Burris, C.C. et al, (2008). Detracking: Achievement Effects of Embracing a Challenging Curriculum as a Universal Good for All Students, Teachers College Record, 110: 571-608; Roda, A. (2015). Inequality in Gifted and Talented Programs: Parental Choices about Status, School Opportunity, and Second-Generation Segregation, Palgrave Macmillan; Rui, N. (2009). Four Decades of Research on the Effects of Detracking Reform: Where Do We Stand? A Systematic Review of the Evidence, Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine, 2: 164-183.