Areas of Expertise


Achievement Gaps
Literature Library


Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. School Factors

How Can Schools Narrow the Black-White Test Score Gap?

A leading scholar reviews the research on the effects that schools can have on narrowing the black-white test score gap. He concludes that many things that schools do make an impact on black and white test scores.

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

Ferguson, R. F. (1998). Can schools narrow the black-white test score gap? In C. Jencks and M. Phillips (Eds.),The black-white test score gap(pp. 318-374). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

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

It seems like an obvious place to look. Surely, we would expect schools to make a difference in the academic performance of black and white students.

However, a leading scholar, Ronald F. Ferguson, titles his 1998 review of research on the school effect on academic achievement, "Can Schools Narrow the Black-White Test Score Gap?" Unless Ferguson is being ironic, the implication of his title seems to be that is an open question (for researchers anyway) whether schools can make a difference in closing the achievement gap between black and white students.

However, with all the talk and research on the effects of such things as family influences, economic class, neighborhoods, heredity, and the like, it sometimes seems as if the importance of the role of schools in addressing the black-white test score gap is missed.

Ferguson examines a broad body of research on schools and their effects on black and white academic achievement. His basic finding is that schools can and do make a difference in alternatively perpetuating and narrowing the black-white test score gap. His real question is not merely whether schools make a difference, but how they make a difference. In other words, research shows that there are things that schools can do to improve the academic achievement of black students. Ferguson reviews research on schools to determine what matters most. He looks at the following six school characteristics aimed at improving black achievement:

  1. preschool programs
  2. student ability grouping
  3. instructional interventions for students at risk of failure
  4. matching students and teachers by race
  5. selecting teachers with strong test scores
  6. smaller classes

What Does the Research Say?


What does the research say?

Remaining questions

Preschool programs

It is clear from both experimental and non-experimental research that preschool programs produce significant increases in IQ and achievement tests that persist into the early grades.

While most studies show that the gains made by children in preschool programs disappear over time, some programs, such as the Perry Preschool, appear to have more lasting effects.

Research also finds that the gains made by black students disappear much faster than the gains for white children. Some researchers believe that one reason for this may be that black students generally go on to poorer elementary schools. However, research support for this explanation is weak at this point.

Why do preschool effects diminish over time?

Why do the benefits of Head Start programs fade more quickly for black students than white students?

Student ability grouping

Even though black students are not equally distributed throughout all ability groupings in proportion to their presence in a school, research indicates that this is not because teachers use race as a criterion for ability-grouping placement. Research shows that black students tend to be placed in lower ability groupings because of poorer past performance and work habits.

Research indicates that grouping students in lower ability classes versus placing lower achieving students in classes with other higher achieving students (in lower ability work groups) does not appear to have negative effects on student learningeither for higher or lower achieving students. Although the research is weak, particularly for reading, ability grouping does not appear to be any worse than any other available alternative for educating lower performing students.

One reason that ability grouping may not have large effects on student learning is that almost all classes still use "passive teaching" techniques (where students are minimally engaged, listen to teachers lecture, fill in worksheets, and the like). Some research on higher track classes indicates that the significant gains by higher achieving classes may be, in part, due to teaching practices that are more engaging.

Do children in homogeneous lower ability classes learn less than children in lower ability groups in heterogeneous classes?

How can instructional techniques tailored to the needs of all students be put into place?

Instructional interventions

There are many small, local educational interventions that have shown impressive effects for raising student achievement. However, most of these appear to depend on the work of highly talented and energetic leaders.

Some well-researched programs, however, have demonstrated the ability to be successfully replicated in other places. Some examples of these programs are Success for All, the Reading Recovery tutoring program, Henry Levin's Accelerated Schools Program, and James Comer's School Development Program.

Success for All is the best-researched program. It is the only well-documented program to be shown to improve elementary school instruction for large numbers of black children in different cities and different states. One significant fact is that Success for All does not focus on race per se, but bases its principles on educational research findings.

Can other instructional intervention programs have the same success as Success for All in raising student scores and in being replicated in many different places?

Matching students and teachers by race

There is some research supporting the idea that black students in early grades may respond better to some teaching techniques (for instance, allowing more movement, using music, switching back and forth between tasks). However, it is not clear whether matching black teachers to black students has much effect.

Research on student-teacher race matching indicates that the teacher's race and social class interact in important ways when it comes to increasing student scores. For instance, black students seem to gain most from low socioeconomic status black teachers and high socioeconomic status white teachers. White students, on the other hand, seemed to gain most from high socioeconomic status black teachers. So, simply matching black students to black teachers does not appear to offer any simple way of increasing the scores of black students.

Why do race and teacher socioeconomic class interact as they do with respect to the achievement of black and white students?

Teachers with strong test scores

Research seems pretty clear that teachers with higher test scores also tend to produce students with higher test scores, although it is not entirely clear why this is the case.

State policies such as those in Texas and Alabama that require teacher entrance exams or teacher recertification exams appear to cull out the least-talented teachers. Research indicates that when teacher certification policies are enacted, the black-white test score gap begins to close.

Additionally, research indicates that the effects of talented teachers accumulates across grade levels. So, for instance, the scores of both high- and low-performing students tend to converge (at a higher level) when a district employs teachers with high teacher certification scores. Alternatively, by 11th grade, high- and low-performing students also tend to converge at a lower level when a district employs teachers with low teacher certification scores.

How can state policies be structured to place more high-scoring teachers in predominantly black schools?

Smaller classes

Researchers disagree over how important school resources are for academic achievement. Some research seems to show that spending more money on school resources does not make much difference. Other research argues that it does.

One thing does seem to be clear, however: Both experimental and non-experimental research confirm that smaller class sizes are associated with gains in student achievementmore for black students than for white. This is especially true for the earliest grades (for which there is good evidence) but may also be true for later grades as well (for which there is interesting, although inconclusive, evidence).

Why should smaller classes make a greater difference for the scores of black students than white students?

The Bottom Line

Ferguson's review of the research on the effect of schools for black achievement brings him to make the following conclusions:


  • Does attending a compensatory preschool raise kindergarten test scores? Yes.
  • Do the effects of preschool last throughout students' careers? The evidence is unclear.

Ability Grouping

  • Are black students distributed in ability groups and curriculum tracks according to their proportions in schools? No.
  • Is the placement of black students in particular ability groups or curriculum tracks racially biased? Evidence indicates that placement is based on measurable differences in proficiency.
  • Does ability-tracking grouping and curriculum tracking sustain or make worse the differences in black-white achievement? The best research indicates that ability grouping and curriculum tracking are not harmful when compared with the likely alternatives.

Instructional Interventions

  • Is there evidence that certain kinds of instructional programs and practices can improve black achievement? Yes.
  • Can successful instructional intervention programs be replicated to different schools and districts? There is evidence that some (but not all) programs can be successfully replicated in different places.

Matching Race of Students and Teachers

  • Does matching teacher and student race improve the academic achievement of black students? The evidence is mixed. It appears that a teacher's social class may have as much impact on student achievement as a teacher's race.

Strong Teachers

  • Do teachers with higher test scores produce students with higher test scores? Yes.
  • Do teacher certification policies help to narrow the black-white test score gap? Ferguson thinks "Yes."

Smaller Classes

  • Do smaller class sizes help improve student grades? More research needs to be done, but current evidence suggests that smaller class sizes help student achievementfor black students more than white students.

Research Design:

Research Questions

How do schools affect black and white student achievement?

Data and Procedure

Ferguson reviews a wide body of research on school effects on black and white student achievement.

Funding Source

Not given.


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