Gap Widens Between Black and White Students on NAEP

By David J. Hoff — September 06, 2000 5 min read
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The slowly rising tide of U.S. student achievement isn’t lifting minority children enough to catch up with their white classmates, data from the federal testing program reveal.

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Executive Summary of “NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance,” from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Thirty years of statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that overall achievement has increased gradually in reading and mathematics—and stayed about the same in science—but that the gap between white and black students has been widening the past 12 years. The outlook for Hispanic students is mixed, with the gulf between them and non-Hispanic whites expanding in some subjects but not others.

While the math results suggest that black students are mastering basic skills such as addition and subtraction, the findings also point to signs that gains made in the 1970s and 1980s are starting to slip away.

“The average scores of black students have remained well below those of whites, and at age 17, the reading achievement of black students was lower last year than it was in 1988—a depressing reversal of the gains made over the previous two decades,” Michael T. Nettles, the vice chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, said at a press conference held here late last month to release the results. The independent panel oversees NAEP.

The NAEP trend fits with scores on other standardized tests, experts say. Over the past decade, for example, the disparity in SAT scores between white and black students increased by 3 points on the verbal section and 8 points on the math portion, according to scores released last week by the College Board.

“These NAEP results are a mirror of what we know from other studies,” said Meredith Phillips, an assistant professor of policy studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Persistent Problem

Since the 1960s, researchers have documented how black children lag behind white youngsters in their performance on standardized tests. The span appeared to be narrowing throughout the 1980s, but it has begun to widen again on NAEP and other measures since then.

Experts have several theories about why the gap exists and is growing. Some say basic-skills programs of the 1970s helped lift minority students in those areas, but that the focus on higher- order skills in the late 1980s and 1990s has left them behind. (“NAEP Drops Long-Term Writing Data,” March 15, 2000).

Others argue that states with major investments in preschool programs, high-quality teachers, and other resources are able to narrow the gap significantly. Those that don’t make such changes don’t close the gulf, those experts say.

“You can almost make it go away if you make the investments,” asserted David W. Grissmer, an analyst for the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank.

The congressionally mandated national assessment has tracked student learning since 1969, starting with a science exam given to 17-year-olds. The reading test was first given in 1971 to children who were 9, 13, and 17. By 1973, NAEP also had mathematics and science exams for all three age groups.

Scores released last week reflect the achievement of a nationally representative sample of almost 50,000 students who took exams in the spring of last year across all three age levels and subjects.

In 1999, overall math scores reached the highest point ever for all three age groups. Reading scores improved over the 28 years that the test has been given, but not as much. The gains were statistically significant for 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds, but not for 17-year-olds.

In science, only 9-year-olds performed higher in 1999 than the first time the test was given. Scores of 13-year-olds were essentially flat, and those of 17-years-olds dropped.

In just about every age group and in every subject, the test-score gap between white and African-American students has grown since 1986, reversing a trend in which the discrepancies decreased from the time the exams were first given in 1969, 1971, and 1973. Since the mid-1980s, gaps in several subjects and age groups have grown by statistically significant amounts.

Only in the science test given to 9-year-olds did the gap narrow, although only by 1 point.

The pattern in the gap between Hispanic students and their non- Hispanic white peers was similar, although in several categories, the divide has narrowed slightly since the 1980s. In 1971—the first time NAEP gave its reading test—white 17-year-olds scored, on average, 291 on the test’s 500-point scale. Their black counterparts scored 52 points lower. The gulf contracted to 21 points until 1988, as black achievement reached 274 points and white children’s average score rose to 295. But the gap now has widened, as black achievement has fallen to 264 points and white students’ scores have stayed steady.

Between 1996 and 1999, white children’s scores stayed at 295 on average, while their black classmates’ scores dropped 2 points.

“Another way to look at it is that the average scores for 17-year-old black students in reading and math are about the same as the averages for 13-year-old whites,” said Mr. Nettles, who is a professor of education and public policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The pattern is similar for 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds in reading, as well as all three age groups in mathematics and science.

The news is a little better for Hispanic students. Since 1975, the first year NAEP collected data on Latinos, the discrepancy between white and Hispanic 17-year-olds’ reading scores has shrunk, from 41 points in 1975 to 24 points in 1999. That gap narrowed from 30 points to 24 points between 1996 and 1999.

Beyond Basics

The story hidden beneath the data, Mr. Nettles said, is the progress that minority children have made in mastering basic skills.

Last year, 89 percent of black 17-year-olds scored 250 points or higher in math—a level that implies the test-taker can add, subtract, multiply, and divide. While black students remain 10 percentage points behind white youths, they have more than halved the span of 25 percentage points reported in 1978, the year NAEP created the indicator.

But at higher skill levels, such as using fractions and decimals, black children are not catching up, Mr. Nettles said. Even though 27 percent of 17-year-olds now reach that level, compared with 17 percent in 1978, white students’ scores rose a similar amount, keeping the gap at the same size.

That confirms what other tests have found, UCLA’s Ms. Phillips said.

“It may be that we’ve managed to improve skills at the bottom, but we haven’t focused enough on moving those in the middle to the top,” said Ms. Phillips, the co-editor of a 1998 book documenting the test-score gap.

“Focusing on the top is pretty essential,” she said, especially now that raced-based admissions practices are under attack at many elite public universities.


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