The Race Gap Widens

By Lynn Olson — January 01, 1997 3 min read

The performance gap between white and minority students is widening again after decades of progress. That’s the overarching finding of a new comprehensive analysis of the 50 states by the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group dedicated to closing the gap.

“The fact that progress in minority achievement has stopped at a time when minorities comprise a growing portion of the student population should sound a wake-up call to the whole country,” the report states.

Researchers gathered together for the first time existing data from a multitude of sources to present an unusually blunt picture of the ways individual states treat their neediest students. “We want to provide honest data for local people to begin discussions in their own communities about what’s wrong and how to fix it,” says Kati Haycock, director of the trust. “Our silence as a profession about these numbers has let policymakers and others off the hook because we’ve allowed them to believe that these kids are doing as well as can be expected.”

The report ranks states and the District of Columbia on 17 critical indicators, from test scores of students by race and ethnicity to spending disparities between school districts. It argues that states and communities should set the same high expectations for all students, offer an equally challenging curriculum, and sharpen their focus on the quality of teaching and the materials available to teachers.

Between 1970 and 1988, the report notes, minority students made dramatic gains in achievement while the performance of white students remained relatively flat. During that time, the difference between white and African-American scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress was cut in half. The gap between white and Hispanic scores closed by a third.

But beginning in 1988, the progress stopped. And in some subjects and grades, the gap began to yawn once again.

Today, African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students perform well below whites in all subjects and at all grade levels. But underachievement is not limited to poor and minority children, the report points out. The performance of most U.S. students falls well below the competency levels set by NAEP for students in each grade and subject.

The report argues that poor and minority children are not performing as well as they could because the deck is stacked against them. “In fact,” it concludes, “we have constructed an educational system so full of inequities that it actually exacerbates the challenges of race and poverty, rather than ameliorates them. Simply put, we take students who have less to begin with and give them less in school, too.”

The report, Education Watch: The 1996 Education Trust State and National Data Book, documents the following disparities:

  • Poor and minority students are less likely than their more advantaged peers to be in classes taught by teachers who majored in the fields they teach.
  • In schools where more than 30 percent of the students are poor, 59 percent of teachers report that they lack sufficient books and other reading resources. Only 16 percent of teachers in more affluent schools report such shortages.
  • Poor and minority students are more likely to be taught a low-level curriculum with low standards for performance. Only one in four students from low-income families is placed in a college-preparatory sequence of courses.
  • About 83 percent of black Americans earn a high school diploma or its equivalent by age 24, roughly the same rate as their white peers. But only 60 percent of Hispanics earn a diploma by that age.

The Education Trust argues that the lack of explicit standards for American education contributes to such disparities. In the absence of such standards, there is wide variation in what schools and districts expect young people to learn. Typically, schools serving the poorest students have the lowest expectations.

The report cites several schools and districts that are proving that poor and minority youngsters can excel if they are taught at high levels. Five years ago, the Providence, Rhode Island, district began requiring that all students take higher-level mathematics. Today, 97 percent of Hispanic and African-American students there take algebra, compared with only 37 percent of black students and 27 percent of Hispanics in 1991.

“Fortunately,” the report states, “there are some schools and districts that are responding to the needs of their poor and minority students, not by lowering standards, but by accelerating learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as The Race Gap Widens