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Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

A Complex Web of Institutional Relations Gives Rise to Educational Disadvantage for U.S. Blacks

A researcher examines the complex institutional processes and relationships that lie behind the racial inequality in academic achievement in the U.S. He develops a model that takes into account family and educational factors to help explain racial inequality.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Roscigno, V. J. (1998). Race and the reproduction of educational disadvantage.Social Forces, 76,1033-60.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

It is well known that minority educational achievement lags behind white educational achievement in the U.S.

But why is this the case?

Researcher Vincent J. Roscigno uncovers a set of interconnected relations that put minorities at a distinct disadvantage for high academic achievement. According to Roscigno, race is not to "blame" for the achievement gap, for there are many other things that come into play. The challenge is to identify what those other things are and how their interrelation makes it more difficult for members of some racial groups to perform well academically.

Roscigno draws on the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) and the Common Core of Data (CCD) to identify an interconnected set of institutional processes that help explain the black-white education achievement gap.

The Effects of Race Are Mediated by Interconnected Institutions

Roscigno creates a model that helps to explain how race is important for educational outcomes. When he talks of the effects of race being "mediated" by other things, he means that race affects certain institutions, and that these institutions, in turn, affect students' academic achievement.

His model examines how race influences three kinds of factors:

  1. Teachers and classes : teacher expectations and academic track placement
  2. Family and friends : family socioeconomic status, family structure, and peer relationships
  3. School characteristics : the class and race structure of schools as well as the resource availability at schools

According to Roscigno, it is not always clear just how these different factors influence math and reading achievement. He says that more research needs to be done. However, he says that research indicates that all three of the above factors influence students' math and reading achievement in some way.

Roscigno models the influence of race on math and reading achievement "through" the above three factors. His model is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Roscigno's Model of the Mediated Nature of Race Influence on Math and Reading Achievement

According to Roscigno's model, differences in academic achievement that appear to be related to race are really a matter of other factors.

Teasing Out Multiple Influences on Reading and Math Achievement

How can you tell what part of black students' academic achievement is a result of race and what part is a result of other factors?

Roscigno teases out the influence of different factors by running three statistical models and then comparing the differences between the models.

  • First, Roscigno examines the effects of race on math and reading achievement.
  • Second, Roscigno takes into account the influence of family and friends and examines how the "amount explained" by race changes.
  • Finally, Roscigno adds in teacher expectations, classes, and school characteristics and examines how the amount of "amount explained" by race changes again.

By comparing the three models, Roscigno can see how much of the difference in academic achievement between black and white students is really a result of factors other than race. Figure 2 analyzes the real influence of race on academic achievement by comparing three models.

Figure 2. Model Comparison as a Way to Understand the Real Influence of Race on Academic Achievement

The Importance of Race Declines as Other Factors Are Taken into Account

Roscigno finds that when he adds the other factors into his model, the importance of race for explaining student achievement differences declines. In other words, the "amount" of difference between students as explained by race decreases.

If we imagine the "amount" of student academic achievement as explained by race as a pie, then as we take into account more factors, the size of that pie gets smaller. See Figure 3.

Figure 3. Declining Importance of Race in Explaining Academic Achievement when Other Factors Are Taken into Account

According to Roscigno, once other factors are taken into account, the importance of race for being able to explain the differences between students decreases by about half.

The Bottom Line

Roscigno says that family and peer characteristics are important for understanding students' academic achievement. He says that the institution of education also affects achievement through teacher expectations by stratifying and segregating students, and through the allocation of resources. But what is important, he says, is understanding how all these things relate. As Roscigno puts it:

"Crucial to our understanding of these processes are linkages between family and educational institutional levels—linkages that tend to reproduce broad patterns of societal inequality." (p. 1058)

Research Design:

Research Question

How does the relationship between the institutions of family and education exacerbate racial inequalities in academic achievement?


Roscigno draws from two data sets:

  1. The National Educational Longitudinal Study. This data set is a nationally representative sample of U.S. high school students and includes principal, teacher, and parent surveys in addition to information on student achievement. The sample includes information at both the school and the student levels. Roscigno was able to match information on students in this data set to school and district data included in the Common Core of Data data set.
  2. The Common Core of Data. This is the primary database used by the National Center for Education Statistics for public elementary and secondary schools.

Because of limitations of the data sets and because of the focus of his study, Roscigno omitted the following information from his analysis:

  • information on private school attendees
  • information on high school dropouts (6.4% of the sample)
  • information on races other than black and white.

Roscigno's goal was to compare the relative influence of race on academic achievement when other factors were taken into account. To do this, he tested three hierarchical linear models of influence on student achievement—specifically math and reading achievement scores.

  • First, Roscigno analyzed the data to see "how much" a student's math achievement could be explained by looking only at race.
  • Second, Roscigno added measurements of family and peer influences into the model.
  • Third, Roscigno added measurements of educational institution attributes into the model

By examining the change in how much race explained as he moved from one model to the next, Roscigno was able to determine the proportion of student achievement—initially "explained" by race—that was really due to institutional processes in the family and educational institution. For instance, when family and educational factors were taken into account, race explained less and less variation in student achievement.

This method of examining the influence of race did not indicate that race was not important in understanding student achievement. But, according to Roscigno, race is simply one component in a larger "web" of institutional processes that lead to racial inequality in academic achievement.

Funding Source

Roscigno's research was supported by a grant from the American Educational Research Association (which, in turn, receives its funds from the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education).


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