School & District Management

Lags in Minority Achievement Defy Traditional Explanations

By Debra Viadero — March 22, 2000 16 min read
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If the researchers studying the reasons why black and Hispanic students continue to trail non-Hispanic whites in academic achievement were pressed to say one thing for certain about their work, it might be this: The usual explanations aren’t good enough.

Poverty can’t explain all of the achievement gap, they would say, because grade and test-score disparities crop up even in middle-class communities with integrated schools.

About This Series
Part I “Unmet Promise: Raising Minority Achievement,”March 15, 2000: Despite decades of attention, gaps in the achievement of minority students remain one of the most pressing problems in education.
Part 2March 22, 2000: Why do the achievement gaps persist? Some blame it on teachers; others say parents need to be stronger advocates and cut down on TV time. In a Korean-American community, parents take no chances when it comes to their children’s education.
Part 3March 29, 2000: Schools run by the U.S. Department of Defense for children of military families may offer lessons on how to raise the achievement of low-income minority students.
Part 4April 5, 2000: There are no sure answers, but some experts say better teaching, smaller classes, the right schoolwide improvement program, and fairer allocation of resources can shrink achievement gaps. A Houston-area district has some answers of its own.
Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

And peer pressure—fears that classmates will accuse fellow minority students of “acting white’’ for excelling in school—won’t do it either. If that were the reason, why would learning differences show up even in kindergarten—when children of every color want nothing more than to please their teachers?

“We know what the causes aren’t. We know what we thought were the causes weren’t as important as some other things,” said Meredith Phillips, a co-editor of The Black-White Test Score Gap, a 1998 book on the subject. “And the traditional liberal and conservative explanations don’t explain much.”

The lack of knowledge is surprising since the gap has been documented since at least the 1960s. Between 1970, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress first began taking the national pulse on student achievement, and 1980, black and Hispanic students made great strides in narrowing the gulf that once separated them from their white peers. But all of that progress seemed to grind to a halt beginning in 1988. Now, African- American and Latino high school seniors on average score at the same level as non-Hispanic white 8th graders on NAEP math and reading tests.

And, most troubling of all, the disparities are greatest at the high end of the achievement spectrum—the statistical pool where the nation’s future leaders swim. Failure to close the gap could ultimately mean failure on the part of American society to integrate all of its institutions from the bottom to the top.

“This whole field of looking at achievement gaps has been under-researched because it’s politically so touchy,” said Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard University economist who has studied the issue. “But by avoiding it, we’ve done an injustice to African-Americans and other children who might otherwise be achieving at high levels.”

To some degree, that avoidance is changing now. What was once a verboten subject has become a top priority for states and school districts nationwide.

The change of heart has come in part because the nationwide move to institute stricter standards and related tests for students is illuminating some glaring disparities among racial and ethnic groups. Also, the backlash against the affirmative action policies that universities have used to increase minority enrollment has made test-score differences more important than ever. If minority students can’t generate scores at least as high as their white counterparts’, the door to higher education in several states might conceivably shut in their faces.

“I think a lot of people continued to think things were getting better,’’ said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington organization that promotes high achievement for all students. “Now, we’ve seen 10 years of no progress and, in some subjects, a widening of the gap. There’s too much evidence to ignore.”

In all likelihood, no single explanation for the achievement gap will ever emerge. Experts say a multitude of factors—ranging from parenting practices to peer pressure—can influence academic achievement. The explanations advanced so far for lagging minority performance, some of which are more widely accepted than others, include:


Even if poverty isn’t the single most important cause of the minority-majority achievement gap, it’s a major contributor. Data compiled for the College Board showed that in 1990, Hispanic children were twice as likely as white and Asian-American children to be raised in low-income families. African-Americans were nearly three times as likely to come from poor families.

Growing up poor often means getting inadequate health care and nutrition, having fewer educational resources in the home and in the neighborhood, and moving frequently—all factors known to depress school performance.

What’s more, in schools with poverty rates of 25 percent or higher, both poor and better-off youngsters do less well academically. Growing evidence also suggests those schools get less funding than schools in more affluent communities.

The legacy of poverty can last for generations. Even when two families have the same income levels, chances are the child from the family whose affluence began more recently is worse off educationally.

“It’s not only the education of your parents,” said David Grissmer, a senior management scientist in Washington for the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.- based think tank. “It really does depend on the education of your grandparents, because wealth does accumulate over time.”

Academic Coursework

Study after study has shown that disproportionately fewer African-American and Hispanic students than whites take challenging academic courses. The reasons vary. Some schools rigidly “track” students into such courses, using test scores or previous grades to winnow out those considered less able. Other schools open their tough academic courses to anyone, but minority students choose not to enroll.

“A lot of times, I think blacks are discouraged from being in honors or AP classes because they see no one else in their race in those classes,” said Imani Farley, an African- American 10th grader at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “And sometimes, counselors don’t encourage you to challenge yourself.”

What’s more, the menu of Advanced Placement courses in some urban schools is just not as full as it is in many suburban schools.

Four Los Angeles teenagers, for example, sued the state of California last year, claiming they had been denied equal access to AP courses. Even though they constitute nearly half the student population in California, blacks and Hispanics account for only 13 percent of AP test-takers in that state.

In answer to the problem, some districts are doing away with systems for tracking their students into higher- or lower-level coursework. But experts disagree over whether eliminating high-track classes would do minority students—or anyone else—much good.

New federal research, however, shows that the biggest factor determining whether young people earn bachelor’s degrees is participation in a strong academic curriculum in high school. That means Advanced Placement courses, more than three years of English, mathematics beyond Algebra 2, and at least two years of laboratory sciences, foreign languages, and history.

“We should be trying to get more black students to take such classes, not trying to eliminate them as an option for whites, who will respond by sending their children elsewhere,” Ms. Phillips and her co-editor, Christopher Jencks, write in their book.

Even more troubling to some are studies suggesting that all the courses in many poor, big-city schools serve up dumbed-down versions of the curriculum taught to students in affluent suburban schools. On national tests, one 1994 federal study found, A students in high-poverty schools scored about the same as C and D students in wealthier schools. Data from NAEP tests in reading and math also indicate that Hispanic and African-American students, compared with their white counterparts, are less likely to be taught reasoning skills and are more likely to be given worksheets—considered a low-level activity—in class.

Peer Pressure

In a widely noted 1986 study, researchers John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham described how a group of low-achieving black students in a District of Columbia high school had come to view academic success as “acting white.” Since then, the phenomenon has been widely documented in racially mixed as well as all-black high schools like the one the researchers studied.

But the idea, always controversial, has more recently become the subject of even more heated debate, with some experts contending that the notion may be more of a symptom than a cause of the achievement gap.

“It sounds like a defense mechanism to me,” said Roslyn Mack, the mother of two African-American students attending integrated schools in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. “It’s ‘because I’m not doing well, I’m going to make you feel badly because you’re doing well.’”

But, Mr. Ferguson of Harvard says, even if that kind of social pressure does not create achievement gaps, it still can be an impediment to closing them up.

High Mobility

It’s a well-known fact that student turnover is higher in schools with high concentrations of poor students, immigrants, or children from migrant-worker families. Obviously, it’s hard for students to keep up when they move to a new school that may not even use the same textbook. One national study from 1998 suggests that moving even once between 8th and 12th grades can double a student’s chances of failing to graduate on time.

But less obvious is the finding that high rates of mobility in a school can also slow the pace of instruction for students who don’t move. In one 1996 study of Chicago schools with high student turnover, researchers found that by 5th grade the level of instruction in those schools was almost a year behind that of schools with more stable populations.

Teacher Quality

A growing body of research is beginning to show that students in schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are more likely to be taught by underqualified teachers.

Those findings are emerging just as other studies are beginning to quantify the damage that an ineffective teacher can do. Research by William L. Sanders and his colleagues at the University of Tennessee suggest that the effects of three consecutive years of bad teachers can linger with students for years.


At least half the academic gap between black and white students at the end of 12th grade is attributable to learning differences that are already present when they begin their school careers, said Ms. Phillips, who is also an assistant professor of policy studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education released data last month showing that black and Hispanic kindergartners already trailed their white and Asian-American counterparts on tests of general knowledge and early reading and math skills. (“Kindergarten Study Taking Long View,” Feb. 23, 2000.)

That suggests to some researchers that parenting practices could be a primary cause of those early differences.

The problem, however, is that researchers know very little about the ways in which parenting practices may—or may not—differ in early childhood.

“I suspect there are systematic differences in the degree to which parents negotiate with their children as toddlers,” said Mr. Ferguson of Harvard. “Simply engaging a child in the kind of negotiation that has a child justify a request, or think through something for themselves, or do a calculation has to help.”

As children grow older, black parents may also be less likely to push their children to earn better grades or take more challenging courses. In a 1996 study, researchers asked teenagers at nine high schools in Wisconsin and California: “What is the lowest grade you can get without your parents getting upset?” The answers varied by race and parents’ educational levels.

Asian-American students whose parents were high school dropouts gave higher grade-level thresholds than white, black, or Hispanic students whose parents had bachelor’s degrees. Black students whose parents were college graduates said their parents had grade standards similar to those of white students whose parents had never attended college.

Experts also point out that, regardless of color, middle- and upper-income parents, tend to take their children to museums more often, to hire tutors when their children are having problems in school, and to pay for test-preparation lessons for college-placement exams.


Minority children have less access to good preschool and day-care programs. The New York City-based College Board, in its report “Reaching the Top,” notes that only 63 percent of African- American and 36 percent of Hispanic parents with preschool-age youngsters enrolled their children in preschool in 1996.

Even programs such as Head Start, the popular federal preschool program for disadvantaged students, fail to reach large numbers of children who would otherwise qualify. Just as important, some evidence suggests that the preschool programs low-income students do attend tend to offer poorer-quality instruction.

‘Stereotype Threat’

In the early 1990s, the Stanford University sociologist Claude M. Steele gave groups of white and black Stanford undergraduates standardized tests. He found that the black students performed worse on the tests when they were asked to identify their race. Mr. Steele theorized that the minority students scored low in those instances because they were anxious about fulfilling negative stereotypes about their own racial group, a phenomenon he tagged “stereotype threat.” Once threatened, he said, minority students may go on to “disidentify” with the academic task at hand or to downplay its importance to them.

No one has yet tested that idea in precollegiate classes, but some experts say it could explain why black students are sometimes reluctant to take advanced academic classes and why their average scores are low on some standardized tests.

The ‘Summer Effect’

Students from low-income families tend to lose ground academically over the summer, compared with peers who are better off, said Karl Alexander, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Mr. Alexander drew his conclusion from a long-term study of 800 Baltimore students who started 1st grade in 1982. During the school year, he and his colleagues found, poor and more affluent students seemed to learn at the same rate, judging by their scores on tests given in the fall and spring.

But the wealthier students tended to keep on learning over the summer—probably because they are more likely to go to summer camp, visit libraries, or take vacations of longer distances, Mr. Alexander said. The poorer students, in contrast, would tread water academically from June to August.

Over the course of several years, Mr. Alexander points out, slight differences each fall can add up to a significant disadvantage for the lower-income children. “When you add it all together you’ve got an environment for some children that helps them move ahead compared with an environment for other children that’s not as enriching,’’ he said.

Teacher Expectations

Teachers are taught to believe that all children can learn, but their own experiences may sometimes tell them otherwise. As a result, experts and minority parents say that at least some teachers, exposed to low-achieving minority pupils year after year, may come to expect less of them. They might not hold them to high standards or encourage them to take more advanced classes.

“If you don’t expect something, you don’t search for it,” Mr. Ferguson said.

Research is thin, though, on whether teacher expectations create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for minority students.

“My bottom-line conclusion is that teachers’ perceptions, expectations, and behaviors probably do help to sustain, and perhaps even to expand, the black-white tests-core gap,” writes Mr. Ferguson in The Black-White Test Score Gap. But, he adds, “much remains on this research agenda.”


During a recent visit by a reporter to Shaker Heights Middle School, students talked about the differences between white students and black students. Brandon Cornelius, a plain-spoken, African- American 8th grader, told of overhearing two sets of girls, one all-white and one all-black, talking in his school. “The white girl, she was saying, ‘On weeknights, I can’t watch TV at all,’” he said. “Then in the hallway, I heard two black girls talking and saying. ‘Did you see what was on TV last night?’ ” Brandon offered an explanation for the difference: “It’s like we want to know what’s going on so we can be in the know a little more.”

His observation is one that researchers have confirmed. A study of more than 3,000 children released last year found that black and Hispanic children spent an average of three to four hours a day watching television, compared with an average of two hours and 22 minutes a day for white children. (“Report Shows Media Play Enormous Role in Children’s Lives,” Nov. 24, 1999.)

Test Bias

Are standardized tests inherently biased against African-Americans and other minority groups? Possibly, experts say, but the tests deserve a smaller share of the blame than researchers once thought. The SAT, in fact, has been shown to overpredict how successful African-Americans will be in college.

“If any parent is worried about the tests being biased and then gets a chance to see what’s on the tests, most would say, ‘This is stuff I would like my kids to know,’” Ms. Phillips of UCLA said.


In 1994, a fiercely debated book, The Bell Curve, resurrected the explosive suggestion that achievement differences among racial groups stem from genetics. Since then, the notion has been widely refuted by scholars from a range of disciplines.

“If there are genetically determined IQ differences,” University of Michigan researcher Richard E. Nisbett writes in The Black-White Test-Score Gap, “they are too small to show up with any regularity in studies covering a wide range of populations and using a wide range of methodologies.”

Even now, six years after its publication, The Bell Curve, written by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein, casts a shadow over public discussions on the achievement gap. The fear is that all the talk could feed harmful stereotypes about the the nation’s minority populations.

That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that the statistics researchers use to describe the achievement-gap problem are averages, Ms. Phillips stressed. Black, Hispanic, white, and Asian-American students can be found at the highest levels of academe as well as in General Educational Development classes.

In the end, she said, “focusing on the gap is not necessarily a good thing, unless people act to reduce it.” The trick, she and many other experts agree, is to figure out how.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Lags in Minority Achievement Defy Traditional Explanations


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