You can predict whether fourth-grade students are going to graduate from high school or college and how much money they will make when they get older based on how well they do on their math tests.
At least that's the impression one gets from an April 2009 report titled, "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools," produced by the Social Sector Office of McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm.
Using complex economic models, the report offers some grim statistics that seek to quantify the financial toll being inflicted on the country and its inhabitants due to various disparities in American education.
While the report examines disparities between black and Latino students in relation to white students – perhaps the most common way of viewing the "gap" – it also examines disparities that exist among regions in the country, gaps between students of different income levels and gaps between American students and students in other advanced nations.
The report says the persistence of these educational achievement gaps is imposing the "economic equivalent of a permanent national recession" on the United States. It concludes that if these various achievement gaps had been closed – to the extent that educational achievement determines future productivity and earnings – America would be a more prosperous nation.
For example, the report says:
- If the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better performing nations, the GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher, or 9 to 16 percent of GDP.
- If the gap between black and Latino student performance and white student performance had been narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher, or 2 to 4 percent of GDP.
- If the gap between low-income students and the rest of students had been narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher, or 3 to 5 percent of GDP.
- If the gap between America's low-performing states and the remaining states had been narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been $425 billion to $700 billion higher, or 3 to 5 percent of GDP.
"The recurring annual economic cost of the international achievement gap is substantially larger than the deep recession the United States is currently experiencing," the report says.
But of all the statistics contained within the report, perhaps the most disturbing is the one that shows how fourth-grade performance strongly predicts whether a student will go to college and how much they will earn.
"Tests as early as fourth grade are powerful predictors of future achievement and life outcomes," the report says, citing as proof a review of fourth- and eighth-grade math achievement tests in New York City.
The report notes how 87 percent of fourth-grade students scoring in the bottom quartile on New York City math achievement tests remained in the bottom half in eighth grade. That's significant because students who scored in the top quartile in math in eighth grade had a 40 percent higher median income 12 years later than students who scored in the bottom quartile.
The higher-achieving eighth-grade students also had a higher likelihood of earning a high school diploma.
The authors of the report seemed to anticipate the sense of despair that might set in over a statistic that suggests a student's future course is set in the fourth grade.
While early test scores are "important indicators of a student's life chances, they do not set the future in stone," the report states.
The report notes that New York City's experience suggests that things can be turned around between the third and eighth grades.
"When starting from a similar point, students who are able to improve their performance between third and eighth grade are much more likely to graduate with honors and thus benefit from higher earnings over time," the report states. "This means that while some students may have different starting points than others, reaching low-achieving students in the early years of their education can have a tremendous impact on their life outcomes."
The report recommends doing more research on the matter, including examining whether increasing teacher salary can improve student performance.