March 13 — 12:00 am, 2003

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

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.

Cultural considerations

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."

School effects

Several studies show that in the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the test score gap between White and Black students and between poor and non-poor students was significantly reduced. Since then, however, the gap has been getting wider.

Some propose that the resegregation of schools in the past several years is part of the problem. A recent study by Harvard’s Civil Rights Project finds that Black students are more likely found in racially segregated schools now than they were three decades ago. Civil rights groups such as the NAACP see dire consequences from this trend, as predominantly Black schools are very likely to suffer from poor funding and resources.

By the time African American children start school, they are already performing, on average, at slightly lower levels than their White, middle-class peers. The gap widens as the students make their way through the school system.

By fourth grade, Black children are generally two years behind White students in all major subject areas. By the time they reach their senior year in high school, Black students, on average, are reading, writing, and doing math at the same level as eighth grade White students.

Some observers argue that Black students — who are often found in schools that are underfunded, overcrowded, and staffed with underqualified teachers — are far more likely to have teachers with lower expectations of them than of their White students. The lower test scores of Black students become, then, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wealth matters

Deborah Meier, in her latest book, reminds us that the gap is also about economic class: "The gap is not nearly as significant as it appears when income is ignored. And the gap would be less so if we took into account real wealth–not just annual income–and accumulated family assets both financial and social."

Still, there are those who emphasize that the gap persists between Black and White students even when Black students have the same socioeconomic status as their White peers and attend the same schools.

Claude Steele, an experimental psychologist at Stanford University, finds that a test score gap exists even for the highest achieving Black students.

Steele conducted a series of experiments in which he asked Black and White students at two elite universities to perform the same activity. In one case, he led the students to believe that the activity had nothing to do with cognitive ability. In another, the students were led to believe that the activity measured intelligence in some way.

Steele found that when Black students believed that the activity did not measure intelligence, they performed as well and sometimes better than their White classmates. When the Black students believed that the activity measured intelligence, their scores fell far below those of the White students.

He concluded that the gap between Black and White test scores was not solely an indication of students’ academic preparation or ability.

Steele said the disparity was largely the result of what he termed "stereotype threat" — which he defined in a 1999 Atlantic Monthly article as "the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype."

Stereotype threat, Steele adds, is something that everyone can experience, though in the case of many Black students it presents itself as the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about academic and intellectual ability.

What works?

There is no silver bullet that can right a problem as complex as the test score gap. The strategies used must be multifaceted and have the long-term commitment of administrators, politicians, parents, teachers, and students.

“This is an incredibly multi-dimensional problem," says Allan Alson in an Annenberg Challenge newsletter. Alson, a superintendent from Evanston, Illinois and a founder of the Minority Student Achievement Network, adds, "It is not limited to instruction alone, or early-childhood literacy, or peer pressure, or culturally relevant curriculum, or tracking. Each and every issue needs a strategy attached to it."

Through two networks — the Network for Equity in Student Achievement, consisting of a number of urban school districts, and the Minority Student Achievement Network, consisting of fairly wealthy suburban districts — school districts share information as they attempt to come up with strategies for closing the gap.

Fort Wayne, Indiana addresses the problem early by providing support programs for young elementary school students who lag in reading and math skills. Boston, with the highest Black graduation rate in the country, takes small learning communities seriously in its high schools as a way to provide more individual attention to students.

But many emphasize that the problem does not only lie with a skills gap. Rather, there is a serious gap in resources between the schools that many White children attend and those that many Black and Brown
children attend.

There is no getting around the importance of a qualified teaching staff, up-to-date materials, and well-maintained facilities, if there is to be a significant and sustained closing of the test score gap.

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