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Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. School Factors

Do Educational Changes Explain the Narrowing of the Achievement Gap in the 1970s and 1980s?

How did educational changes affect the black-white test score gap in the 1970s and 1980s? A team of researchers investigates the effects of educational processes on the achievement gap.

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

Grissmer, D., Flanagan, A., & Williamson, S. (1998). Why did the black-white score gap narrow in the 1970s and 1980s? In C. Jencks and M. Phillips (Eds.),The black-white test score gap(pp. 182-226). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Pp. 201-206

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

Many changes occurred in the American educational landscape in the 1970s and 1980s. David Grissmer and his colleagues Ann Flanagan and Stephanie Williamson look at how some of these changes may have affected the rising test scores of US black students.

Are Changes in Education Part of the Explanation for Rising Black Test Scores?

Grissmer and his colleagues look at several different educational changes that may have had an impact on the rise in black students' test scores. They find that some changes in education appear to have mattered more than others.



Early Education

In 1967, 16% of 6-year-olds had been in preschool when they were 4. This figure rose to 52% in 1993. The enrollment rate among 5-year-olds was at 66% in 1960. This rate rose to 85%&–90% 15 years later.

The authors say that there is consensus among scholars that early education leads to a significant increase in academic achievement during the first few grades. However, these effects appear to fade over time. So, while early education efforts may have helped to raise the test scores of black 9-year-olds, there is not any evidence that early education had much effect on the test scores of 13- or 17-year-olds.


The authors say that if more black students were enrolled in college preparatory classes, then we might expect test scores to rise.

However, during the period of the largest gains in black 17-year-olds' test scores, the number of black teens in college prep classes changed very little: from 33% in 1982 to 36% in 1992. Similarly, the numbers of white teens in college prep classes also changed little during this period, from 41% to 46%.

Elementary Classroom Grouping

The authors note that there is some evidence that grouping students by skill levels within mixed elementary classrooms (that is, classrooms with both high- and low-performing students) can raise test scores. However, not only are these gains modest, but they appear to help both higher and lower achieving students. So, the authors think it unlikely that this change had much effect on the test-score difference between black and white students.

Changes in Curriculum

More demanding curricula became the norm throughout the 1980s for both black and white students. Black high school graduates reported 1.1 classes in higher level math in 1982 and 2.0 classes in 1992 (compared with whites who reported 1.8 classes in 1982 and 2.5 classes in 1992). Also, the percentage of black students who had more academically challenging courses (four years of English,three years of social science,two years of natural science, and two years of math) increased from 32% in 1982 to 76% in 1994. This was similar to white students, whose completion of more academically rigorous class work increased from 33% to 76% in the same period.

Grissmer and his colleagues say that these increases could be part of the explanation for the closing test score gap if academically rigorous courses helped black students more than white students. They say that they have no evidence for this, however.

In summary, it appears that changes in U.S. educational practices helped both white and black students during the 1970s and 1980s. While this may be part of the explanation for the rise in black students' test scores, it does not explain why black student test scores rose so much more than white students' test scores during this period.

Research Design:

Research Questions

Why did both black and white test scores rise for all ages in both reading and math over the past thirty years?

Why did black students' scores rise substantially more than white scores at all ages and in all subjects?

Why did black adolescent achievement scores remain stable for cohorts entering from 1960 to 1968&–1970, then suddenly accelerate for cohorts entering school between 1968&ndash1972 and 1976&–1980, and then stabilize or fall in subsequent cohorts?

Why did black adolescents first gain more and then lose more than black nine-year-olds?

Why did black reading gains precede black math gains?

Why were black gains higher in the Southeast and lower in the Northeast?

Why did low-scoring students gain more in math and less in reading than higher scoring students, regardless of race?


Grissmer and his colleagues draw on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) longitudinal test score data. This data source begins in the late 1960s and continues.

To determine how trends in test scores are related to other social changes, the authors relate the NAEP data to family characteristics from the Current Population Survey and the National Education Longitudinal Survey and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.


The authors look at the changing test scores as the dependent variable. They examine three kinds of independent variables:

  1. family characteristics
  2. changes in education
  3. changes in school organization and characteristics

They compare black and white students' test scores from the initial NAEP data to later test score trends. They measure changes from this initial starting point in terms of the standard deviation. They then regress changes in family, education, and school trends onto the changes in black and white students' test scores.


Support for Grissmore, Flanagan and Williamson's research came from the center for Research on Educational Diversity and Excellence, supported by the U.S. Department of Education, the Danforth Foundation, and RAND.


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