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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

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Why Standard Explanations of the Achievement Gap Do Not Explain Changes in the Achievement Gap

By looking closely at white-minority achievement gap trends over the past 30 years, a researcher argues that none of the standard explanations for the academic achievement gap fully explains the trends.

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

Lee, J. (2002). Racial and ethnic achievement gap trends: Reversing the progress toward equity?Educational Researcher, 31,3-12.

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

The achievement gap between whites and minorities in the U.S. has changed over the past 30 years. Using the long-term test score trends of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as an indicator, we see the following patterns in math scores.

Figure 1. Black-White NAEP Math Test Score Gap

Figure 1 shows that between the late 1970s and late 1980s, the difference between the NAEP scores of white and black students decreased. This happened across all three ages tested: 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds, and 17-year-olds. In the early 1990s, the achievement gap ceased to decrease and, since 1996, has even increased slightly.

Figure 2. Hispanic-White NAEP Test Score Gap

Figure 2 shows that there is no clear relationship between white and Hispanic test scores from the 1970s to the late 1990s. While the overall gap appears to drop slightly over the time period for 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds, the gap appears to have increased for 9-year-olds.

Changes in Trends Go Unexplained by Standard Explanations

Researcher Jaekyung Lee examines some standard explanations for the achievement gap in light of the fluctuations in the trends. Specifically, Lee looks at:

Socioeconomic and family conditions, including:

  • measures of poverty
  • percent high school attainment
  • percent going to college
  • single parent households

Youth culture and student behaviors, including:

  • youth value of education and educational attainment
  • sense of safety at school
  • exposure to violence
  • drug and alcohol use

Schooling conditions and practices, including:

  • school desegregation
  • compensatory education programs
  • per-pupil expenditure
  • student/teacher ratio
  • level of teacher education
  • level of teacher experience

From Lee's perspective, what we would expect to see by explaining the achievement gap from the above factors does not fit what we actually see.

Factors purported to explain the achievement gap

What we would expect if the factors explained the achievement gap

What we see

Why this does not explain the achievement gap

Socioeconomic and family conditions

As discrepancies between white and minority socioeconomic and family conditions become less, the achievement gap should also decrease.

  • The black-white gap on socioeconomic and family variables narrows between 1977 and 1999. The gap narrowed quickly in the late 1970s and early 1980s and slowed in the late 1980s and 1990s.
  • The black-white achievement gap decreased in the 1970s and early 1980s, but then flattened and began to increase in the late 1980s and 1990s.
  • The Hispanic-white gap on socioeconomic and family variables hardly changed from 1977 to 1999.
  • There is no consistent pattern in the Hispanic-white achievement gap.
  • Why does the black-white achievement gap increase in the 1990s even though the black socioeconomic and family conditions did not get worse relative to whites?
  • If the Hispanic socioeconomic and family situation relative to whites has been relatively consistent, why is there no consistent pattern in the Hispanic-white achievement gap?

Youth culture and student behaviors

  • If minority students developed an "oppositional" attitude toward education while white students did not, we would expect the achievement gap to widen.
  • If minority drug and alcohol use increased relative to whites, we would expect the achievement gap to widen.
  • If minority students were more exposed to crime and safety concerns at school than white students, we would expect a greater achievement gap.
  • Statistics report that all students reported being better prepared and watching less TV; more aspire to post-secondary education in 1990 than 1980.
  • Research indicates that drug and alcohol use dropped for all students until 1992 and increased since then. However, black and Hispanic drug and alcohol use has been lower than white student use over the entire period from 1978 to 1998.
  • All students reported that their schools were safer in 1990 than 1980. Also, the rate of victimization for all racial and ethnic groups dropped between 1992 and 1998.
  • If minority student culture values the same things as white student culture (in terms of the value of education) why did the black-white achievement gap increase in the 1990s?
  • If minority drug and alcohol use did not increase (relative to whites) and, in fact, was lower than whites, why did the black-white achievement gap increase in the 1990s?
  • If victimization rates decreased for all students, why did the black-white achievement gap increase?

Schooling conditions and practices

As school conditions improve, the achievement gap should decrease.

  • The student-teacher ratio dropped through the 1970s and 1980s and remained stable throughout the 1990s.
  • The proportion of teachers with Master's degrees rose by 24% from 1971 to 1986, and 4% from 1986 to 1996.
  • The median number of years of teaching experience rose from eight to fifteen years between 1971 and 1986 and stayed the same from 1986 to 1996.
  • Per-pupil expenditure increased by 60% between 1970 and 1986 and 17% from 1986 to 1996.

The improvements in schooling conditions until 1986 and then stabilizing after 1986 follows the patterns of black achievement, but does not explain why white achievement would have risen in the 1990s when schooling conditions were not improving dramatically. These changes also do not explain why Hispanic test scores seem to be largely unaffected.

Lee does not suggest that the above factors do not play into the achievement gap at all. However, he does argue that by themselves the above factors cannot fully account for fluctuations in the achievement gap for different racial and ethnic groups at different points in time.

Research Design:

Research Question

Why do standard explanations of the minority-white achievement gap inadequately explain fluctuations in the gap for different racial and ethnic groups over time?

Why do standard explanations of the minority-white achievement gap inadequately explain fluctuations in the gap for students at different achievement levels over time?

Data

Jaekyung Lee draws on the 1999 Long Term Trends report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Method

Lee compares expected and actual achievement gap trends.

Funding Source

This research was supported by the National Academy of Education and a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship.

 



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