Explanations abound for the Black-White test score gap
Some emphasize biases in the tests themselves; others point to differences in schools, economic class, or culture
by Raymond Gunn
Over the years it has been widely reported that a gap persists in standardized test scores between various groups of students. Students from low-income communities tend not to do as well as wealthy students, girls do not perform as well as boys, and students of color do not score as highly as White students.
The gap that spurs the most discussion, however, is the one between Black and White students.
These discussions are likely to heat up now that President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act is requiring states to set and meet goals around improved student test scores, with a clear emphasis on closing the gap in performance between students of color and White students.
But many people, from parents to policymakers, are concerned about how to eliminate the persistent gap in test scores between Black and White students.
A veteran Philadelphia third grade teacher put it this way: "I have had White and Black children that have comparable backgrounds and their work in the classroom is the same, but the White children do better on the tests. I don't know why."
While most people have discounted the once popular but blatantly racist claims of racial differences in intelligence, many are still seeking ways to explain the persistent gaps. Can the answer be found in the tests themselves or in the schools? Is it the level of wealth that makes the difference in test scores, or are certain cultural attitudes to blame?
Are tests biased?
Christopher Jencks, who in 1998 co-edited The Black-White Test Score Gap with Meredith Phillips, argues that the content of tests can be biased in favor of one group over another.
For example, despite higher grade point averages, girls tend not to do as well on multiple-choice tests as boys. Nevertheless, standardized tests use this testing format almost exclusively.
Similarly, multiple-choice tests like the SAT-9 and the TerraNova are norm-referenced and have an inherent bias towards mainstream or "middle class" culture. Scored to resemble a bell curve, norm-referenced tests ensure that 50 percent of the test-takers will score somewhere below average.
Test items on which non-mainstream students score well tend to disappear on the final versions of these tests, making these students likely to get the lowest scores. Standardized test questions, according to educator Deborah Meier in her new book In Schools We Trust, are "necessarily steeped in prior cultural assumptions -- norms -- that favor some kids over others. If all testees responded the same way, the question would be a bad item."
Harold Berlak of the Applied Research Center agrees. To him, the problem with standardized tests is much bigger than identifying which individual test items are racially or culturally biased. He believes that the biases are much more far-reaching, extending to the way the tests are constructed, administered, and used as a measure of accountability.
Another influential perspective on the test score gap between Blacks and Whites comes from those who argue that much of the gap can be attributed to the cultural attitudes that many Black students bring with them to school.
Anthropologists John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham have been the most vocal proponents of this view. Together they have popularized the phrase "acting White," a derogatory term they claim that Black students apply to other Black students who are academically successful. According to Ogbu and Fordham, it is this type of peer pressure that keeps many Black students from striving for academic excellence.
While Ogbu's earlier work focused on low-income, urban Black students, his most recent study claims to find the same "oppositional" attitudes in affluent Black communities as well.
"What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents; they don't know how their parents made it," Ogbu said in a New York Times interview. "They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models, they are looking at entertainers."