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Achievement Gaps
Literature Library


Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. Social Factors

What Is the Role of Social Expectations in the Achievement Gap?

Researchers have found that different social expectations sometimes account for the gap between black and white students’ achievement.

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

Sadowski, M. (2001, November/December). Closing the gap one school at a time.Harvard Education Letter. Retrieved August 8, 2002, from

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

Researcher Michael Sadowski notes that in recent years, several studies have reached contradictory conclusions about whether the achievement gap between white and black students is narrowing. In their bookThe Black-White Test Score Gap(1998), Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips found that the reading and math gaps between black and white 17-year-olds had narrowed throughout the 1980s. More recent data, however, suggest that the difference between black and white students’ test scores has actually increased in the last several years. While the current trends of the achievement gap may be disputed, Sadowski makes one thing clear: the gap persists.

Black Students Not Less Motivated Than Whites

According to Sadowski, the persistence of the achievement gap is surprising at first glance, since surveys have shown that on most measures of effort and academic motivation, black students score as high as or higher than white students. For instance, a survey of black students in Ohio showed that they tend to spend as much or more time on homework as their white peers.

Explaining the Achievement Gap through Social Expectations

Despite the similar amount of time black and white students spend on their homework, blacks tend to complete their work less often. Researchers have examined several school districts across the United States to ascertain some of the causes for this disparity in achievement. They have found that different social expectations often hinder black students’ achievement. Sadowski points to three areas where social expectations negatively affect black students:

1.Black students experience school differently from whites. Evidence from school districts in Indiana and Ohio suggests that black students feel less connected to school than their white counterparts. They also tend to have more negative relationships with their peers than do white students.
2.Black students battle negative perceptions. One reason that black students often have a negative attitude toward school is their sense that black students are not treated with the same standards as white students. Disciplinary action is a prime example: “There’s a perception that if you do the same thing, you’ll get a worse punishment if you’re black” (National Problem, Local Solution section, ¶ 4), the superintendent of the Fort Wayne Community Schools notes.
Black students may also suffer from “stereotype anxiety” that discourages them from completing and handing in homework. Professor Ronald Ferguson of Harvard University has suggested that “students may think it’s better to look like you’re not trying than to look stupid. You really don’t want to feed the stereotype of ignorance” (University Researchers' Role section, ¶ 3).
3. Black students have different expectations. Research has found that teachers’ expectations for black students are lower than they are for white students. Such expectations can affect students’ own perceptions about their abilities throughout their learning careers. Reduced expectations for black students are also partly responsible for the lower level of their enrollment in Advanced Placement courses. Teachers may be less likely to admit black students to higher level courses.
Even black students have different expectations for themselves. Sadowski emphasizes Professor Ferguson's findings on this issue: Ferguson has found that while white students tend to view an outgoing attitude and self-confidence as the attributes that make a person popular, black students often value "acting tough." Ferguson notes that "what teachers see are kids with this tough persona, who don’t hand in their homework" (University Researchers' Role section, ¶ 4).

Research Design: The author surveys findings on explaining and reducing the achievement gap based on studies conducted by school districts in Indiana, Ohio, California, and North Carolina.


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