ETS Report Notes Arrested Progress in Closing Black-White Achievement Gap

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by Frank Matthews

For decades, the persistent achievement gap between Black and White students has vexed educators, policymakers and researchers. Equally troubling is the fact that there had been progress—significant improvement throughout the 1970s and ‘80s—that came to an abrupt halt.   

A 39-point gap in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test scores between Black and White 13-year-olds in 1971, for instance, fell to 18 points by 1988. The gap widened in the 1990s before falling to a 21-point difference in 2008. The average math score of Whites in this same age group was 46 points higher than that of Black students in 1971. The gap narrowed to a 24-point difference in 1986.

Researchers at Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) Policy Information Center set out to explain the factors that contributed to those gains and the reasons progress halted, drawing on existing and new data to examine the role declining neighborhoods, race-neutral policies, concentrated poverty and single-parent family structures, among other things, play on children’s achievement.

Researchers Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley found no clear culprit behind the persistent achievement gap but in the report, “The Black-White Achievement Gap: When the Progress Stopped,” point to “a wide and sticky web of conditions that are holding back progress.” The report offers no recommendations, noting that solutions to these formidable challenges will have to come from Black communities.

“Our modest objective is to help an interested and thoughtful reader to come to some judgments of their own; the research community does not have a monopoly on insight, and the policy machinery will continue to run,” the report says.

Diverse talks with Coley about why African-American student achievement took a turn for the worse.

Diverse: What prompted this study?

Coley: The ETS Policy Information Center has been monitoring this trend and trying to inform the debate for a long time. The achievement gap continues to be our focus. Paul (Barton) and I have tried to identify those outside factors that may explain the reasons that the gap stopped narrowing. This was just a further extension of our work.

Diverse: Were there any surprises?

Coley: We were surprised at how much the gap has increased. We tried to figure out what was going on because, after so many years of the gap narrowing, it stopped doing so. We wanted to find an explanation but we couldn’t find a smoking gun as to why the gap shopped shrinking.

Diverse: Were there any confirmations about previous assessment tools, research approaches or conclusions?

Coley: First, we confirmed the strength of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). We nailed down NAEP’s trajectory. It’s considered the gold standard. We’re pretty sure that the trends that have been reported are valid.

Diverse: What followed the confirmation that things were getting worse for Black students?

Coley: We were struck by the realization of our weakness in not being able to prove anything. Desegregation, class size—you name it—we haven’t been able to definitively link it to the alarming changes we found. It also happened with educational levels and not just test scores.

Diverse: Some point to hip-hop’s influence on the decline of Black student achievement.

Coley: We didn’t get near that topic. Former National Urban League President Hugh Price said we missed the hip-hop angle. We know that some lyrics are anti-education but, again, we couldn’t find a single smoking gun.

Diverse: What other possibilities did you pursue?

Coley: We also tracked a number of other issues. The difference between income and net worth, for instance. Intergenerational wealth is not happening for many people, but it is especially bad in the Black community. I was surprised at the lack of movement from one generation after another.

Diverse: How do your findings jibe with others like those of noted anthropologist John Ogbu and sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom you prominently cite in the report?

Coley: Ogbu’s work informs us in that he’s a breakthrough anthropologist. Some of the problems are structural and some cultural. Now Wilson and others are talking about cultural problems. His thinking has evolved. Cultural and structural factors play at each other.

Diverse: What about public policy?

Coley: The economy is having a devastating effect on the Black community. The appetite to fund programs to address the problem is just not there. It’s not a very opportunistic period that we’re entering into. We’re going to see more and more economic conservatism.

Diverse: Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund have used statistics effectively over the years to advance their agenda. You say the problems will have to be solved within the Black community but are you optimistic about that given the many efforts already underway?

Coley: We need to work with Marian. We need to combine our efforts. Hungry kids aren’t going to learn anything. We need to recognize the link between school and out of school. I’m optimistic that the gap can be closed. It has to be a national commitment.    

Click here for the ETS report.

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