This is worth further exploration, however, please review at your leisure.
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Published Online: April 14, 2008
Published in Print: April 16, 2008
Black-White Gap Widens Faster for High Achievers
New research into what is commonly called the black-white “achievement gap”
suggests that the students who lose the most ground academically in U.S. public
schools may be the brightest African-American children.
As black students
move through elementary and middle school, these studies show, the test-score
gaps that separate them from their better-performing white counterparts grow
fastest among the most able students and the most slowly for those who start out
with below-average academic skills.
“We care about achievement gaps because of their implications for
labor-market and socioeconomic-status issues down the line,” said Lindsay C.
Page, a Harvard University researcher, commenting on the studies. “It’s
disconcerting if the gap is growing particularly high among high-achieving black
and white students.”
Disconcerting, but not surprising, said researchers who have studied
achievement gaps. Studies have long shown, for instance, that African-American
students are underrepresented among the top scorers on standardized tests, such
as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Fewer studies, though, have
traced the growth of those gaps among high and low achievers.
The reasons why achievement gaps are wider at the upper end of the
achievement scale are still unclear. But some experts believe the patterns have
something to do with the fact that African-American children tend to be taught
in predominantly black schools, where test scores are lower on average, teachers
are less experienced, and high-achieving peers are harder to find.
The two new working papers, which were presented at last month’s annual
meeting of the American Educational Research
Association in New York City, use different test data and research designs
to tackle that question. Yet both arrive at similar conclusions.
For his analysis, Sean F. Reardon, an associate professor of sociology and
education at Stanford University, analyzed reading and mathematics scores for
nearly 7,000 elementary students taking part in a federal
study known as the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort. From kindergarten to 5th grade, he found, the achievement gaps grew twice as fast among the students who started out performing above the mean than they did among lower-performing children.
“The long-term implication of this is that, if these gaps continue to grow
throughout their schooling career, even kids who enter kindergarten with high
levels of readiness are going to end up falling below where they started,” said
In the second study, economists Steven G. Rivkin and Eric A. Hanushek tracked
800,000 Texas children as they moved from 3rd through 8th grades in successive
The researchers grouped the students into four quartiles, based on
their 3rd grade scores in reading, and studied each group’s progress on state
math tests taken in 3rd and 5th grades. The higher the initial achievement
score, the researchers found, the more scores diverged over time between black
and white students. (In contrast to Mr. Reardon’s study, however, the gap among
high achievers at 8th grade was still slightly smaller than the gap at the low
end of the achievement scale, even though the rate of growth in the black-white
gap was greater at the upper end.)
One possible reason for the faster rate of growth in the gap among higher
achievers is that African-American students, by and large, attend schools where
a large proportion of the students are black, according to Mr. Rivkin, an
economics professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and Mr. Hanushek, who
is a senior fellow at the Hoover
“It appears on average to be worse for a child to be in
a school with a high black enrollment share, but it’s not clear why,” said Mr.
Rivkin. “It could be important given the recent [U.S.] Supreme Court decision on
desegregation,” he added, referring to a ruling in June of last year that
sharply limited schools from using race to assign students to
Mr. Reardon reasoned that, because schools with predominantly
African-American enrollments tend to have lower average test scores,
high-achieving black children may be further from the mean, academically, than
is the case for top-scoring white children.
“If instruction is aimed more
to the middle of the distribution, then black children are less likely to have
cognitively stimulating opportunities—not because anyone is being racist, but
because the thing to do is aim instruction to the average level of the school,”
In the Texas study, the researchers also found that black children on average
were taught by less experienced teachers. But that seemed to more adversely
affect the low-achieving African-American students in the sample than the high
performers, according to that analysis.
Some other research also suggests
that high-achieving black children in some schools face more peer pressure to
mask their academic abilities and that black children, on average, tend to have
fewer opportunities for intellectual enrichment outside of school, which might
be particularly important for bright students.
“We need to pay more
attention to micro-level dynamics,” said John B. Diamond, an associate professor
of education at Harvard who is not connected with the two new studies. “There
may be some issues around teacher expectations tied into race that have
something to do with these outcomes. You really have to parse out educational
opportunities and see what differences might be there.”
paperat the same AERA session found that differences between the schools
that black and white students attend began playing an increasingly important
role in recent decades in the growth of racial achievement gaps at the national
That analysis, which was conducted by Ms. Page, a doctoral
student, and two Harvard professors, also determined that the national gap,
which narrowed in the 1970s and 1980s and then widened again in the 1990s,
tracked closely to changes in the percentages of white and black parents with
more than a high school education.
At least one other recent longitudinal
study examined growth in racial achievement gaps at the student level over time,
according to Mr. Reardon.
Tracking North Carolina students in grades 3-8,
that study found the black-white gap in math widened for students who started
out achieving at the 90th percentile or higher and narrowed among students at
the bottom of the distribution. Those researchers attributed the trend, however,
to new state policies that put pressure on schools to reduce the numbers of
students scoring at minimum levels on state tests.
“It’s not a well-known
finding or one that people talk about, even if people have found it before,”
said Ronald G. Ferguson, the director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, said about
the gap’s differential impact on high-scoring students. “But it’s not
Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the
Vol. 27, Issue 33, Pages