Black students assigned to a double dose of literacy instruction in middle school did worse on state and national tests than their white, Asian, and Latino classmates in the program, according to a newly published study in the spring 2015 issue of the Education Finance and Policy journal.
The students, who attended school in an unidentified large, urban district in the South, had scored below the 60th percentile on the literacy section of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) in 5th grade and were encouraged to enroll in an additional literacy course when they started middle school in place of the world language classes that most students took.
The district instituted the extra class time because a number of studies have found that students—especially low-income children—are at heightened risk of slipping in reading skills during the transition between elementary and middle school.
Researcher Shaun M. Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, analyzed ITBS and statewide assessment scores for more than 40,000 students who were in 5th grade between 2002 and 2007 and fell into one of two groups.
The first had scored just below the 60th percentile—at the 58th to 59th percentiles—and agreed to follow district policy and take the supplemental literacy class. Students in the second group scored at or above the 60th percentile cutoff and didn’t have to take the course.
Dougherty told Education Week that by 7th grade, black students enrolled in the extra course, who attended predominantly white schools, fell an average of six points in national percentile rank on the tests, while results were about “equal size and opposite direction” for white, Asian, and Latino students. The gap widened by 8th grade.
Scores also dropped, but not as much, for black students attending majority-black schools.
“The magnitude of the effects in both places point to the case that it’s likely black students are being negatively impacted by this program in all settings,” said Dougherty.
The study didn’t examine the reasons for the differences, but Dougherty said that when he met with district officials, they discussed several possible explanations, including “stereotype threat.”
Psychologist Claude Steele, now the provost at the University of California, Berkeley, developed this term based on his research with Joshua Aronson that found minority students may become so anxious to disprove common perceptions about their abilities that it interferes with their work, causing them to do poorly on tests and reinforce the negative stereotypes.
Dougherty said that may be happening to the black students in predominantly white schools who scored close to the 60th percentile on the ITBS, but whose scores fell when they were asked to enroll in the supplemental literacy course.
Even though there’s almost no difference between students who were at the 60th or 61st percentiles compared to those at the 58th or 59th percentiles, they may be “primed to think of themselves as not adept,” explained Dougherty, “if they were being reminded somehow that there’s this stereotype of black underperformance...even though they’re above the national average in their own performance.”
The district has modified the program in response to his research and to other factors. One key change is that students can now test out of the course at several junctures during the year.
Dougherty said he hopes the results also inform decisions in other districts about what happens with the additional time. It can’t be simply more of the same thing, he added, “you need to look closely at how [district-wide policies] play out differently across schools before adopting them wholesale.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.