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Black Students Narrowing Gap, Study of Test Scores Confirms

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The gap in educational achievement between black and white students has closed considerably over the past decade, a period when many programs designed to correct social and educational imbalances between the races were implemented, according to a new analysis conducted by two University of North Carolina researchers.

The researchers, Lyle V. Jones and Nancy W. Burton, emphasize that it is not possible to establish whether these programs and other changes--desegregation, for example--that occurred during the 1970's were responsible for the improvement in achievement.

However, they note, that "programs designed to foster equal educational opportunity may be among the factors that have contributed to the reduction in white-black achievement differences."

The study, based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (naep), analyzes for the first time the changes in achievement among various racial groups relative to one another. The researchers looked at achievement-test scores in five subject areas surveyed regularly by the naep: reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies.

The analysis follows other recent reports--the latest one from the Department of Defense--that also indicate gains in achievement by blacks.

®MDNM¯In addition, the study notes, there have been dramatic increases over the past 20 years in the number of black students who graduate from high school.

However, the researchers point out, "while students were staying in school longer, it is not clear [from this trend alone] that the performance of schoolchildren was improving." The new study makes it clear that achievement, as well as participation (i.e. attendance and graduation), has improved for black students.

The researchers confined their analysis to 9- and 13-year-olds, who entered school in the 1960's just as Head Start got underway, school-desegregation efforts gathered momentum, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first passed by Congress.

In addition, they write, these age groups are "almost completely covered by the national assessment in-school sample." The assessments also survey 17-year-olds, but by that age, Mr. Jones pointed out, about 10 percent of all students have dropped out of high school and another 5-to-10 percent attend very seldom.

During the 1970's, the researchers found, there was no "dramatic overall ... trend in achievement" for American children in the age groups surveyed by the assessments.

However, when they analyzed the relative changes in test scores among racial groups, they found that black students made marked gains in achievement in many areas, and their progress brought their achievement-test scores closer to those of white students.

"Typically," Mr. Jones and Ms. Burton write, "when achievement for white students has declined, that for black students has declined less; when whites have improved, blacks have improved more."

'Markedly More Difficult'

For learning areas other than writing, which appears to be "markedly more difficult for black children," than for white children, the researchers write, "the average difference between white and black 9-year-olds has shrunk from about 17 percentage points to 10 or 11 [percentage points] over the decade of the seventies."

By the time blacks reach the age of 13, mathematics has replaced writing as their most difficult subject, the researchers found. But for areas other than mathematics, the gap between black and white students in achievement-test scores had shrunk by about 6 percentage points. In 1970, the average scores for 13-year-old black students were 17 to 18 percentage points below those for white students; this had changed to a difference of 12 or 13 points in 1980, according to the researchers.

The analysis also provides "some reason to believe that the improvements for black children at age nine were not lost as the children became older," the researchers write. The 9-year-olds measured in 1970 were 13 in 1974 and, Mr. Jones and Ms. Burton write, "inspection of the 13-year-olds' performance suggests that the improvement of 9-year-old students in the early 1970's may be mirrored at age 13 in the later 1970's."

It is still a controversial question, the researchers point out, whether these educational gains were accompanied by "continued social and economic gains." Various analyses of economic indicators provide no definitive answer, although, Mr. Jones and Ms. Burton note, many figures support the view that while the situation has improved for middle-class blacks, the plight of the black poor has worsened.

An account of the study appears in the April issue of Educational Researcher.

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