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Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. Family Factors

The Key to Black Achievement is Criteria, not Comparison

Efforts to force racial proportionality in colleges and the workplace are misguided, says one scholar.

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

Gottfredson, L. S. (2000). Skills gaps, not tests, make racial proportionality impossible.Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 6,129-143. Retrieved August 2, 2002 from ProQuest database.

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

The unequal distribution of high-status jobs and places at elite colleges among black and white Americans is not merely a matter of racial injustice, says researcher Linda S. Gottfredson. It is a matter of a demonstrable cognitive skills gap between black and white Americans. According to Gottfredson, a policy of forcing racial proportionality in colleges and the workplace not only will fail to solve the problem of racial injustice, it will make things worse. It will give the illusion of black progress (for a very short time) without really solving the underlying problem.

What is the underlying problem, according to Gottfredson? The cognitive skills gap. Until we focus our efforts on closing the skills gap, forcing racial proportionality at institutions of higher learning and work places will never work.

What Is Racial Proportionality?

Racial proportionality means having the same proportion of blacks in all social institutions as there are in the general population. So, for instance, if 12% of the US population is black, racial proportionality would mean that 12% of US congressmen and senators would be black, 12% of students at elite colleges would be black, 12% of school janitors would be black, 12% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies would be black, and so on. The fact of the matter is that while a tiny proportion of CEOs are black, blacks tend to be dramatically over-represented among lower-status jobs.

Gottfredson says that the going assumption is that racial dis-proportionality is unjust and needs to be fixed. So, government policies to force racial proportionality have been put into place in such places as colleges and businesses. The problem, says Gottfredson, is that because there are real differences in the average cognitive skills among black and white Americans, racial proportionality is impossible if cognitive skills (as seen in test scores) are used as criteria for recruitment.

Gottfredson points to two ways that colleges and organizations have tried to bring about racial proportionality in light of the black-white skills gap:

  1. Double standard. Black students or workers have to meet a lower standard for membership than whites. For instance, a white student may be required to score 1000 on the SAT to gain entrance at a certain college while a black student would only be required to score 800.
  2. Low standards for everyone. Another approach is to set the entrance requirements so low that racial proportionality is possible. Gottfredson says that some schools have stopped requiring the SAT to qualify for college entrance.

Gottfredson says that neither of these approaches will work. For example, forcing racial proportionality in the workplace would mean:

  • workplaces would have to drop their recruitment standards
  • a greater number of incompetent people would be hired
  • the organization would suffer because

    a large proportion of its workers could not carry out their jobs without extensive training and support

    the difference between the smartest and dullest workers in the same position would become dramatic—possibly fostering dissension and resentment

Because racial differences in cognitive skills are real, racial proportionality is impossible if organizations and schools are to continue to function adequately.

What Is the Black-White Cognitive Skills Gap?

A person's cognitive skill level is an estimate of his or her general ability to handle increasingly complex cognitive tasks—from something as simple as balancing a checkbook to something as complex as forecasting the financial projections of an organization or industry.

What does the black-white cognitive skills gap look like? Gottfredson draws on a number of analyses to estimate the gap. Figure 1 presents the black and white differences on three national adult literacy skill surveys.

Figure 1. Percent of Whites and Blacks over 16 Years Old atFive Levels of Proficiency on Adult Literacy Skill Surveys

Figure 1 shows that the black literacy scores rest for the most part in levels 1 and 2, while the white literacy proficiency scores peak in level 3. According to Gottfredson, the proficiency levels correspond to the following grade levels in school:

  • Level 1 : grade level 2.5 (elementary school)
  • Level 2 : grade level 7.2 (junior high school)
  • Level 3 : grade level 12 (high school graduate)
  • Level 4 : grade level 16 (college graduate)
  • Level 5 : above grade level 16 (beyond college)

Gottfredson says that this pattern is replicated in many other scales of cognitive skill.

But Is the Skills Gap Real? Some Criticisms and Responses

Gottfredson notes:

"Discussions of racial disparities in cognitive skill are often painful, especially for blacks, who have labored under the burden of perceived racial inferiority for so long." (Reluctance to Acknowledge Racial Gaps in Skills section, ¶ 2)

Consequently, she says, many scholars are reluctant to admit (at least in public) to a real skills gap between black and white Americans. She also notes that other scholars have even argued that America is better served by believing lies about the equality of racial skills rather than face "unsettling truths about race."

Gottfredson will have none of this. The only way to address the skills gap is to acknowledge that it exists and then get down to the hard work of working to overcome it.

The author critiques several perspectives on the black-white cognitive skills gap that she believes downplay the importance and reality of the skills gap.

Critique of the Skills Gap Research

Gottfredson's Refutation of the Critique

Stereotype threat explains the apparent skills gap.

Gottfredson says that some researchers have used Claude Steele's research on the stereotype threat to discount the importance of the skills gap. Steele found that black college students performed less well on tests when they were asked to identify their race. Steele's research is supposed to show that blacks perform less well on tests because of anxiety over the black stereotype of intellectual inferiority.

According to this perspective, the black-white skills gap comes from black students' anxiety in a test-taking situation rather than from any real difference in cognitive skills.

Stereotype threat explains very little of the general skills gap.

Gottfredson says that no one has demonstrated that test anxiety accounts for the large test gaps between blacks and whites across many different situations. Test anxiety may account for some test score differences among some college students in a test-taking situation, but what about black-white differences for other-aged individuals in other situations? Test anxiety does not seem to be a likely explanation, says Gottfredson.

Gottfredson identifies three findings that should be true if the stereotype threat is really the explanation behind the black-white skills gap:

  1. Tests should underestimate blacks' later performance in school and work.
  2. Test results should be sensitive to the emotional supportiveness of the tester and not the cognitive complexity of the task.
  3. Racial gaps in test scores should rise and fall with the racial climate.

Gottfredson says that research indicates that the opposite of these three situations is true. In short, stereotype threat does not appear to explain much of the enduring black-white cognitive skills gap.

Mental ability and brain structure are malleable.

Gottfredson says that some scholars argue that because the mental abilities and brain structure of children change over time, then we should be able to control these changes. In short, because we see that brains do change means that we can control how brains change.

Just because mental abilities change does not mean that they can be controlled.

Gottfredson says that just because a characteristic changes over the life course of an individual does not mean that we can control that change. For instance, children grow after birth. This means that height is a changeable characteristic. This does not mean that we can control the average height of a group of people. Changeable does not mean malleable, says Gottfredson.

General mental ability does not have broad practical importance.

Some studies have shown that there does not appear to be any correlation between test scores and performance in elite graduate programs or occupations. So, some scholars conclude, this means that test scores do not make a practical difference.

Studies that show no correlation between scores and performance look at overly narrow samples.

Gottfredson says that the range of the samples in the commonly cited studies is too restrictive to be meaningful. That is, if you look for a correlation between test scores and performance only among the best and the brightest students or workers, what have you really found? Gottfredson says that the range of these studies is too narrow. The implication is that when both the brightest and the slowest students and workers are all taken into account, we do see a correlation between test scores and performance.

High levels of general ability are not important in a non-academic setting.

Some studies have shown that people of widely varying IQ levels can learn moderately complex skills, such as racetrack handicapping or quickly estimating the relative values of different prices and sizes of grocery products.

Thereis a difference between mastering one complex skill and having the aptitude to master any number of complex skills.

Gottfredson says that there is a difference between mastering a single complex task and more general cognitive competence. With the right instruction and training, even a person with lower cognitive skills may be able to learn a moderately complex task. This is very different, says Gottfredson, from the higher ability person who can master many different complex tasks without the benefit of extensive practice and instruction.

None of these perspectives adequately calls the reality of the black-white skills gap into question, says Gottfredson. The weight of research has demonstrated both the reality and durability of the gap. She says that whether scholars or others want to face it, "racial gaps in cognitive test scores represent an important national problem requiring concerted attention." Hiding from the problem will not solve it.

Racial Proportionality Is Not a Measure of Progress

What counts as progress?

Gottfredson believes that forcing racial proportionality in colleges and workplaces will not bring about progress in racial justice, but quite the opposite. She says that the goal should not be to fight the symptom of racial disproportionality, but to address the cause—the racial skills gap. How can this be done? Drawing from the work of the National Urban League, Gottfredson identifies several actions that should help address the skills gap.

  • Academic development is absolutely critical for black advancement.
  • Blacks must be the leaders for academic and economic improvement in their communities.
  • Development in psychological, social, and financial infrastructures must be measured according to criterion-related goals.
  • Progress should not be measured relative to whites, but relative to the advancement goals that black communities have set for themselves.

Poor black academic performance is not necessary, says Gottfredson. She lists several reasons to believe that the black-white skills gap need not be a perpetual national problem:

  • Gottfredson believes that it is possible to increase the knowledge and skill levels of all students—both cognitively and non-cognitively.
  • She believes that social trends, especially those in family structure, that can stunt academic growth can be reversed.
  • She says that external assistance can bring about lasting development in black communities.

Research Design:

Research Questions

Can current legal policies of forcing racial proportionality in colleges and the workplace be effectively implemented?

What might be some results of mandating racial proportionality in colleges and workplaces?

What is the black-white cognitive skills gap?

Data and Method

Gottfredson draws on numerous psychological and educational sources to estimate the black-white cognitive skills gap, including:

  • Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scales
  • Wonderlic Personnel Test
  • National Adult Literacy Survey

Gottfredson examines the effects of recent policies to force racial proportionality in light of the black-white skills gap.

Funding Source

Not given.


Copyright © 2007 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.