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Achievement Gaps
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Can the Achievement Gaps be Overcome?

  1. How to Close the Achievement Gaps: Research and Policy

    1. Schools and Communities

The Problem Is “Cognitive Equity”

Mindy Kornhaber poses the test score gap as a problem of what she calls “cognitive equity.”

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

Kornhaber, M. (1998, November/December). The black-white test score gap.The American Prospect,9. Retrieved August 8, 2002, from

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

Although she does not disagree with Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips’s findings on reducing the black-white test gap, Kornhaber suggests that the focus of efforts to remedy the gap should be elsewhere. She stresses the need to provide opportunities for the equal development of human cognitive skills for both black and white students.

To that end, she proposes two ways of providing equal opportunities for cognitive development.

1. Don’t focus unduly on tests. Tests are given too much weight, Kornhaber believes. They are insufficient as both explanations for achievement and as measurements of ability. Moreover, they do not accurately predict future achievement. Tests "are only an indirect and partial proxy for true mental muscle," she writes.
Nonetheless, Kornhaber worries that so much emphasis is put on tests that policies for actually building cognitive skills may be neglected. As an example, she cites how in recent years many states and school districts have devoted efforts to retaining students whose test scores are inadequate. Yet research has demonstrated that retaining students—keeping them around for another year—can undermine achievement. It dramatically increases the chances of the student's dropping out. Such a policy, then, could actually perpetuate the gap rather than close it.
2. Focus on building minds. Instead of fixating on test scores, policies should be created to unite test preparation with cognitive training. She recommends reducing class sizes and training teachers with improved classroom techniques.
Studies have shown that black students lack access to better teachers. But better teachers can provide students with increased opportunities to engage and reflect on the material they are learning. Such reflection is the key to building mental muscle, Kornhaber argues. Improving cognitive skills, then, will also increase black students’ test scores.

Jencks and Phillips Respond

Jencks and Phillips agree with Kornhaber that standardized tests measure a relatively narrow range of cognitive skills and account for only a fraction of the black-white differences in college grades.

However, Jencks and Phillips point out, even though cognitive skills differences evident on tests explain a small part of the variation in earnings among individuals of the same race, the differences do not explain a large portion of the differences in earnings between blacks and whites. This may be good news. Jencks and Phillips agree with Kornhauber that focusing on raising cognitive skills may allow us to close the achievement gap "without having to eliminate all the other historical, cultural, and social problems associated with racism" (Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips respond section, ¶ 7).

Research Design: This article consists of a series of responses from prominent experts to Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips’ article “America’s Next Achievement Test,”The American Prospect, 9, no.40, September-October 1998.


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