Years ago, as part of my parents’ unending attempts to clear the house of the junk I left when I moved out, my mother handed me a folder stuffed with remnants of my public school education.
Tucked away with my elementary school report cards and other papers were some yellowed form letters from The College Board declaring my SAT scores. I took the college admissions test twice as a high school student in the late 1980s, prepped only with the practice tests that my school offered.
My final scores landed me in the 99th percentile of college-bound high school seniors nationally at the time; my math score was in the 75th percentile. “Good enough,” I thought, and proceeded to forget about them for years.
My SAT scores might have remained a bit of trivia had I not become an education reporter. But my career has given me a reason to think a lot about testing, and what seems to be an intractable test-score gap between black students (as well as Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native students) and white and Asian students.
It sounds naive, but at the start of my career as an education reporter, I really wondered: Why is there such a big black-white test gap? I mean, I’m no genius, but I did OK. Why does this gulf never seem to close?
It’s becoming easier to look at the SATs, specifically, and say those scores don’t matter any more. Some of the nation’s most exclusive colleges and universities—Bowdoin, Wake Forest, the University of Chicago, and other well-respected liberal arts institutions—have become test-optional. It’s an ironic dismissal of a test that was originally created to bring equity to the college admissions process.
But the same ethnic and racial gaps exist across all kinds of tests, not just assessments for college admissions. One could argue that the SAT is too easily influenced by outside factors, such as test-prep classes. But students don’t prep for the National Assessment for Educational Progress, and the so-called “Nation’s Report Card” shows similar gaps.
Teachers have one of the closest views of student performance, and Education Week recently asked them what they believe are the factors that explain why white students, overall, perform better academically than black students. (The survey respondents were predominantly white, like the teaching population as a whole, with 20 to 30 years in the classroom.) The teachers were given a number of factors to choose from: genetics, discrimination, school quality, student motivation, parenting, income levels, home environments, and neighborhood environments.
The explanation of student performance, those teachers said, rests primarily with the students and their parents. Three-quarters or more of respondents said that motivation, parenting, income, home environments, and neighborhood environments explained student academic gaps “somewhat,” “quite a lot,” or “extremely.”
Seventy-two percent said “school quality” was a major factor. A little less than half said that discrimination played a major role.
A notable minority, about 29 percent, said that genetics are somewhat to extremely significant in explaining academic gaps between black students and white students. (An even higher percentage of respondents, 38 percent, said genetics are a significant reason why Asian students in the aggregate have better academic outcomes than their white peers.)
That disparity may not be the fault of individual teachers—but it’s someone’s fault."
But “black” is as much a social construct as it is a matter of genetic heritage: I have two black parents and call myself black. So does Barack Obama, who has one white parent. So does Kamala Harris, a U.S. senator from California, who has one parent from India. The category of “black” is fluid, as are other racial and ethnic categories—and geneticists agree that we are more different from each other as individuals, than we are as populations grouped by “race.”
I was defensive and annoyed when I analyzed the results of this survey. “It’s not our fault!” seemed to be the takeaway from teachers, but kids spend up to 13 years of their lives in school. Of course what happens there is relevant.
But I have to acknowledge some truth in what these teachers are saying. Yes, it mattered that my parents were middle-class, college-educated folks who filled my childhood home with books. Yes, it mattered that they were able to show me, through their lives, the rewards that can come from a good education. But it also mattered that they were able to work the system well enough to steer me into well-resourced schools in a well-resourced school district.
And that leads me to an element that overlies all of this: wealth.
Poor students of all races perform worse on tests than more-affluent students. It’s true of the SATs and every other standardized test. And black students (along with Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native students) are more likely than their white and Asian counterparts to be poor.
And there are specific policy decisions that amplify the corrosive effects of poverty. Right now, majority-minority school districts get $23 billion less in funding nationally than majority-white school districts, according to EdBuild, a nonprofit organization working to overhaul school finance systems.
That disparity may not be the fault of individual teachers—but it’s someone’s fault. We are concentrating students who may already have the least, into school districts that have less money to support them. And instead of trying to make the system fairer, it’s actually getting worse, as a growing number of affluent communities work to form their own school districts, effectively keeping their resources for themselves.
I want to end on a hopeful note. So I talked to Ronald F. Ferguson, an economist and the director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative. He’s studied this issue as closely as anyone in the field, and, in 2016, released a report called “Aiming Higher Together: Strategizing Better Educational Outcomes for Boys and Young Men of Color.”
This report resonated with me because it attempts to explain all the barriers that stand in the way of students by the time they reach adolescence. Unsurprisingly, Ferguson said that the academic gap begins before children start school, which points to the need for more supports at home. Those academic gaps and the behavioral problems that come along with them are often met with teacher hostility and low expectations, all curdling into what Ferguson in this paper called “the predicament.”
Ferguson studied successful school-based interventions and outlined several common elements of success. None of them are surprising—a commitment to high expectations for all students, rigorous instruction, and well-managed classrooms, among them—but each takes hard work to implement at scale.
Right now, Ferguson is particularly focused on supporting early-brain development as a key to success for all children. “I like to emphasize the opportunity we have, as opposed to cataloging the differences” among children of different races and ethnicities, Ferguson said. “There are things that parents and communities could do differently to help children to achieve more early-brain development than they do.”
And that early-brain development can get all children off to a good start—as long as there are strong schools and teachers to support them.
“Nobody by themselves can change the laws of motion in this system,” he said.
So why are achievement gaps so persistent? I’m left with the realization that none of us are off the hook. Not parents, teachers, schools, or policymakers.
I have a son who is just a few years into his public school education. Like my parents did for me, I’d like to create a path so smooth that he is successful without even having to think too hard about how it happened.
But I can’t do it by myself, no matter what my SAT scores were. Why achievement gaps exist is an important question. But more to the point, I think, is that we agree that we are all responsible for trying to close them.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as Whose Fault Is the Black-White Achievement Gap?