Equity & Diversity

Gap Persists In Minority Achievement

By Debra Viadero — October 20, 1999 5 min read

A panel of scholars from education and other fields was scheduled this week to call for a concerted national campaign to close the stubborn achievement gap that separates top-performing black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian-American peers.

Even as students from some minority groups now graduate from high school at rates equal to those of their white classmates, African-Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians remain underrepresented among the nation’s “best and brightest” students.

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In well-off high schools, for example, proportionately few minority students become valedictorians or score in the top 10 percent or 20 percent on standardized tests. In colleges and universities, too few earn the grades they need to enter competitive graduate schools--or even to graduate.

It’s a situation that has to end, the National Task Force on Minority High Achievement concludes in a report that was set for release Oct. 18.

“W.E.B DuBois argued that no society can afford to neglect its ‘talented tenth,’ ” said Edmund W. Gordon, the Yale University psychologist and author who co-chairs the panel. “And there is also some evidence that, by raising the achievement level of the top group, you begin to pull the bottom up.”

The task force of 31 educators, scholars, philanthropists, and business leaders was created two years ago by the College Board, the nonprofit group that sponsors the SAT as well as Advanced Placement tests and other programs for high school students.

In its report, the group proposes a host of ways to shrink the achievement gap among high-end students. They range from evaluating and deploying school improvement strategies that raise academic achievement for all students--not just those at the bottom--to establishing out-of-school programs for minority students to supplement what they learn in class.

“The issue of a high-achievement gap is something we’ve all been hesitant to speak about because we didn’t want to seem elitist,” said Eugene H. Cota-Robles, a University of California, Santa Cruz, biology professor and the panel’s other co-chairman. “The question is: Can we have a program for high-achieving students without being elitist? I think we can.”

Becoming Urgent

The report comes as closing the achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups is becoming a priority in states and districts nationwide. This past summer, for example, 14 relatively affluent districts announced plans to create a national network focusing on the problem. (“Network of 14 Districts to Focus on Achievement Gap,” July 14, 1999.)

And the New York City-based College Board is already working to help that group devise a common data-management system to keep tabs on the issue.

The concerns are buoyed in part by statistics. Eighty-seven percent of blacks between the ages of 25 and 29 have earned a high school diploma--a rate equal to that of whites in the same age group. Yet twice as many whites in the same age range hold a bachelor’s degree.

Minority students last year also accounted for an average of only one in 20 of the students with a combined score of 1200 or above out of 1600 on the SAT, roughly the level needed to win a place in the freshman class at selective colleges. More troubling, the gaps on that widely used entrance exam persist--and even worsen--among students who have at least one college-educated parent.

The issue takes on new urgency, Mr. Gordon said, as colleges and universities, prodded by court rulings, begin to back away from affirmative action policies that have helped minority students win admission.

Edmund W. Gordon

“If among the best of students there are differences, it’s going to be even more difficult to maintain representation in higher education,” he said.

The report’s authors say it has already generated debate among some minority leaders, who fear it could renew doubts about minority students’ academic potential. But the study group proposes numerous reasons for the gap--none of which has anything to do with intellectual ability.

Racism, poverty, and resource-poor schools all play a role in perpetuating the gap that separates racial and ethnic groups, the report says. And, it adds, educators sometimes hold lower expectations for minority students than they do for their white classmates.

Black students who get good grades may also face in some communities ostracism from peers who accuse them of “acting white,” the report notes.

An Early Start

Research by Claude M. Steele, a task force member and a Stanford University professor, also suggests that some talented minority students are afraid to invest too much in their studies for fear they will fail and confirm negative stereotypes about their racial or ethnic groups.

The achievement gaps begin to show up in early elementary school, the report says, and persist throughout schooling.

“That pool of kids doing well is pretty well established in the primary grades,” said L. Scott Miller, the task force director. “If we’re going to get more kids doing very, very well, we’ve got to be doing better there.”

Federal education programs such as Head Start and Title I, which grew out of the 1960s “war on poverty,” helped disadvantaged students make some strides, the report says. But such initiatives had little impact on high achievers.

To nudge those students higher, the task force recommends, federal education officials and others should open up top-notch preschool programs to minority children of all economic levels and pay for comprehensive improvement programs in elementary schools in which only a quarter to a half of students may be disadvantaged.

Educators at all levels of government, the task force says, can help ensure that minority students are well-represented in high-level classes or programs.

“You can certainly pass policy statements that let schools and school people know what’s expected,” Mr. Gordon said.

The task force’s “affirmative development” strategy also calls on colleges and universities to track their students’ achievement and to collaborate with historically black institutions to set up programs that support minority students once they arrive on campus.

“No 18-year-old walks on campus a thousand miles away from home and gets instantly integrated into a whole new lifestyle,” said panel member Antoine M. Garibaldi, the provost and dean of academic affairs at Howard University in Washington.

The plan also seeks to enlist the World Bank and other international funders to help expand schooling opportunities in the Latin American countries that feed the nation’s growing immigrant population.

The report is the first of a series of studies that the task force plans to produce over the next few years.

Others will focus separately on the demographics of the achievement-gap issue and look at promising programs for colleges and universities.

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