Education Opinion

The Misunderstood Achievement Gap

By Walt Gardner — September 11, 2015 2 min read
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When the results of the next round of standardized tests are released, you can be sure they will continue to reveal a vast gap between the performance of whites and Asian students on one hand and that of blacks and Hispanics on the other. This is a cause of deep concern, but as Thomas Sowell argues it is a poorly understood issue (“The March of Foolish Things,” The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 5).

Sowell points to the concept of “disparate impact” as an example. Different outcomes on tests among different groups are automatically assumed to be evidence of discrimination. If discrimination didn’t exist, the theory goes, then scores would be distributed more or less at random. The issue almost always seems to involve race. But as Sowell says, “many disparities arise simply because people are different, and because they make different choices.” In her new book, The Making of Asian America (Simon & Schuster 2015), Erika Lee underscores Sowell’s view, explaining that there is no one way to define or identify a complex population (“ ‘The Making of Asian America’ is a stirring chronicle long overdue,” Los Angeles Times, Sep. 6).

Both make an important point, but I’d go a step farther: Why does disparate impact almost always apply only to race? What about, say, religion? If Jews, for example, perform better on standardized tests than Catholics, Protestants or Muslims, shouldn’t this achievement gap also be a source of worry? Why not?

In fact, it once was in this country, as Jerome Karabel makes clear in The Chosen (Houghton Mifflin 2005). When the sons of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe starting in the 1880s began to ace entrance examinations for admission to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the presidents of these schools panicked and decided they had to take measures to reduce their numbers. What followed was nothing less than an obsession. Since academic merit wasn’t working as intended to exclude a sufficient number of Jews, “character” and “leadership” were used to solve the problem.

I cite the above as a heuristic when considering the racial achievement gap in public schools today because it is as much an obsession as what Karabel describes. The disparities are certainly real, but I agree with Sowell that differences are not ipso facto evidence of discrimination. Parents don’t always make the right choice for their children. For example, some are not involved enough in their children’s education. Efforts to reach out to them fail. Some young people also work harder than others. This has nothing at all to do with discrimination. In fact, it is the antithesis.

Going forward, I think we should be focusing more on individual performance than on group performance. It’s a given that there will always be gaps within any group. No one disputes that reality. I say that trying to engineer similar patterns between groups is equally futile. We can try, of course, but I don’t think the achievement gap will ever be significantly reduced. It is a quixotic undertaking.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.