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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

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Scholars Believe We Can Close the Black-White Test Score Gap, but Traditional Answers Will Not Work

Scholars have known about the existence of a gap between blacks and whites in terms of achievement test scores since the early twentieth century. However, this gap persists. Scholars explain why they think the gap can be closed, why traditional perspectives on the gap are inadequate, and why closing this gap is important.

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

Jencks, C., & Phillips, M. (1998). The black-white test score gap: An introduction. In C. Jencks and M. Phillips (Eds.),The black-white test score gap(pp. 1-51). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Pp. 1-12

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

Scholars Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips see almost universal pessimism in the U.S. over our ability to close the test-score gap between whites and blacks. After all, social scientists have been aware of the racial gap in test scores since World War I, when the U.S. Army first began testing its recruits. Efforts have been made, in fits and starts, since then, but the gap persists.

Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray's 1994 book,The Bell Curve, made the case that racial differences in cognitive skills was largely genetic. The implication being, of course, that if cognitive ability is innate and there are racial differences, then the test score gap may be something we just have to live withunpleasant as that may be.

What Facts Lead Scholars to Say the Test Score Gap Can Be Closed?

Jencks and Phillips say that we have little evidence to believe that some innate racial difference lies behind the test score gap. Moreover, they say that certain facts indicate that the test score gap is something we can do something about.

What are the facts that lead Jencks and Phillips to believe that we can close the test score gap?

  • When black or mixed-race children are raised in white homes, rather than black homes, their test scores rise dramatically prior to adolescence.
  • Non-verbal IQ scores change as a result of changes in the social environment. This is not limited by race. Jencks and Phillips point out that scores on IQ nonverbal tests have risen dramatically around the world since the 1930s.
  • Differences between blacks' and whites' academic achievement have narrowed throughout the twentieth century. Trends indicate that while the gap may persist, it has dramatically narrowedas much as by half since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Based on these findings, the differences in test scores among races does not appear to be fixed. They change over time.

The pressing questions, however, are: what is behind this change, and what can be done to further close the gap?

Liberal and Conservative Answers Will Not Work

Jencks and Phillips say that part of the political problem with addressing the test score gap is that "traditional" understandings of the gap, and how to solve it, are inadequate. They point to shortcomings in both liberal and conservative perspectives on the gap.

Liberal Perspective

Why this approach is inadequate

In the 1960s, liberals routinely blamed the test score gap on:

  • black poverty
  • racial segregation
  • inadequate black schools

The solution was to:

  • raise incomes of black families
  • desegregate schools
  • spend more money on schools that remained segregated
  • The number of affluent black families has risen since the 1960s, but the test scores of their children still lag behind whites. The effect of income inequality on the test gap appears to be quite small.
  • Large racial differences persist even in desegregated schools. Desegregation of Southern schools in the 1970s appears to have raised black test scores somewhat, but the school's racial mix does not appear to have much effect, especially after the 6th grade.
  • The average white child and the average black child now live in school districts that spend roughly the same amount per pupil. Additionally, black and white schools have the same average number of teachers per pupil, pay teachers according to the same pay scale, and hire teachers with roughly the same amount of formal education and teaching experience.

Conservative Perspective

Why this approach is inadequate

  • Many conservatives blame a "culture of poverty" that rejects academic achievement, a work ethic, and traditional two-parent families in favor of immediate gratification and episodic violence.
  • The decline of the family is to blame for the test score gap.
  • Genetic differences account for black-white test score differences.
  • A "culture of poverty" explanation fits only a small proportion of black families and does not explain the test score gap that persists for children from affluent black families.
  • Whether a mother is married has little impact on her children's test scores once the mother's years of schooling, test scores, and family background are taken into consideration.
  • Most evidence suggests that environment—whether "black" or "white"—has a far greater impact on their test scores than genetics.

According to Jencks and Phillips, the black-white test score gap does not appear to be inexorable. However, neither does it appear to be a simple function of poverty, genetics, a culture of poverty, segregation, or family structure. All of these factors seem to be involved in one way or another. The problem, of course, is how to disentangle all the different things that contribute to the gap.

Why Is the Test Score Gap Important?

Why focus on the test score gap at all? If this problem is so complex, why not focus on poverty or some other social characteristic that differs among races?

Jencks and Phillips say that the answer is fairly straightforward: higher test scores are related to higher levels of income. So, if racial equality is the ultimate goal, raising test scores may be a particularly effective way to achieve this.

In fact, say Jencks and Phillips, higher test scores may actually benefit blacks more than whites. They cite the nationwide High School and Beyond survey that tested 12th graders and then followed them into their late 20s. The study found that when black and white 12th graders had the same scores on achievement tests, the black students were actually more likely than whites to earn a B.A. degree. So, while overall black 12th graders suffered a 16.7 point disadvantage for college graduation (that is, were less likely to graduate from college than their white peers), high-scoring blacks had a 5.9 point advantage over their white peers. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Disadvantage (Negative) and Advantage (Positive) Blacks Have for Graduating College Relative to Whites

Research Design: Authors Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips review theories and research on the black-white test score gap. They also comment on effects of the gap and what things might be done to narrow it.


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