School & District Management

Achievement Gaps and Racial Segregation: Research Finds an Insidious Cycle

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 29, 2016 5 min read
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Fifteen years of new programs, testing, standards, and accountability have not ended racial achievement gaps in the United States.

The Stanford Education Data Archive, a massive new database that allows researchers to compare school districts across state lines has led to the unwelcome finding that racial achievement gaps yawn in nearly every district in the country—and the districts with the most resources in place to serve all students frequently have the worst inequities.

“I think we like to think, ‘Here we have this problem, but it’s fixable. We know we could figure it out.’ It’s not clear we’ve figured it out,” said Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University. “There’s some deep ... problems that we as a society haven’t faced up to yet.”

This morning, Reardon and his Stanford colleagues Demetra Kalogrides and Kenneth Shores released the first in an ongoing series of studies based on the new data. The new studies shine a light on how racial disparities in education differ throughout the country—and how school segregation widens the gaps among students.`

The Stanford researchers and Harvard University education professor Andrew Ho linked state tests’ scale scores to the scales for National Assessment of Educational Progress in the same grades and subjects, and used it to compare average achievement gap trends for 3rd-8th grade students in more than 11,000 districts across the country from 2009 to 2013. (For more details on how researchers can compare achievement in districts using different state tests, check out our explainer.)

Competition Could Drive Segregation in Well-Off Districts

That five-year window enabled researchers to focus the study on districts completing a decade of state and federal accountability initiatives designed to close academic gaps between white students and their black and Hispanic peers. But of the 2,500 school districts with a large enough sample of black students to measure their achievement gaps, Reardon and his colleagues found only one with no black-white gap: Detroit.

“Detroit is not the poster child for reducing the achievement gap,” Reardon said in an interview with Education Week. “The achievement gap is zero in Detroit largely because everyone’s doing really poorly, not because black students are doing particularly well.”

Moreover, the researchers found some of the biggest black-white achievement gaps in the country—where black students lag their white peers by more than 1.5 full standard deviations, or four to five grade levels on the NAEP scale—in relatively prosperous university towns, like Berkeley, Calif. (home of the University of California, Berkeley);Chapel Hill, N.C. (home of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill); and Evanston, Ill. (home of Northwestern University).

“Richer places have bigger achievement gaps than poorer places, all else being equal--which is quite striking and disturbing, since you’d hope that those places that have the most resources would be most effective at reducing the gaps, but in fact they seem to have the largest gaps,” Reardon said.

While the researchers have not yet dug into the personal factors that play into achievement gaps, they do have a theory about why these centers of higher education haven’t encouraged more equitable K-12 achievement: “In the most advantaged places, you have this increased competition and focus on school success as important for kids—a hyper-achievement orientation in those places,” he said. “And in places where competition is high, resources matter even more than they do in places where you don’t have that sort of achievement anxiety.”

Watch Reardon explain more about his findings.

The Segregation ‘Feedback Cycle’

That parental drive to find the best education for their kids could ramp up economic segregation in neighborhoods, too.

A new and separate study by Ann Owens, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Southern California, found that neighborhoods in the 100 largest cities became steadily more isolated by income between 1990 and 2010—but the segregation was driven by families with school-age children.

“Whenever we talk about neighborhood and school segregation, they really go hand in hand,” Owens said. “There’s really a feedback loop, and it’s often framed as, we can never have integrated schools while we have segregated neighborhoods, but the flip side is true, as well. As long as schools are unequal and linked to neighborhoods, that’s going to play a big role in neighborhood segregation.”

Reardon agreed. In a second study using the Stanford data set, he looked at the effects of 16 different facets of racial segregation: school and residential isolation, segregation within and between districts, racial or socioeconomic isolation, and differences in how likely students are to be exposed to students of particular races or socioeconomic groups.

While all types of segregation were associated with wider achievement gaps for black and Hispanic students compared to their white peers, Reardon found the strongest predictor was the difference in likelihood of attending a high poverty school for white, black, and Hispanic students. This might explain why Detroit seemed to have the lowest achievement gaps: White, black, and Hispanic students were all fairly equally likely to attend high-poverty schools or be in poverty themselves there.

“Even after you control for kids’ family backgrounds, it’s quite clear in the data,” he said, adding that the finding “suggests it’s something about school quality—not only about racial segregation, but about the fact that racial segregation in America almost inevitably leads to these kind of disparities in [students’] exposure to poverty and differences in the kinds of resources that schools have.”

Looking for Successful Outliers

Going forward, the researchers are trying to identify common factors in districts that have narrowing achievement gaps for black and Hispanic students. They have also started to analyze how racial achievement gaps vary for boys and girls in different cities and to dig in more deeply into which districts have larger achievement gaps for students in poverty.

“Really, there are very, very few school districts that serve a large proportion of poor students and that have achievement that’s even at the national average,” Reardon said. “That suggests we may not be able to just ‘school reform’ our way out of that kind of inequality.”

Charts: A new study finds a wide range of racial achievement gaps in school districts across the country, with some wealthier districts showing wider disparities. Source: Sean Reardon, “School Segregation and Racial Achievement Gaps,” and “The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps.” reardon segregation and achievement gaps apr2016.pdf


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.