The Race Achievement Gap

The Race Achievement Gap

The following post presents research or analyses from outside KASB and is presented for information purposes.  KASB neither endorses nor refutes the conclusions or recommendations contained herein.
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The National Center for Education Statistics recently released a report entitled “School Composition and the Black-White Achievement Gap.” In it, they present results of analyses related to the impact of school composition on student outcomes. Put in plainer English, they looked at how the percent of White and Black students in a school impact student outcomes for Black and White students.  

Initially, the study found:

  • “Achievement for both Black and White students was lower in the highest Black student density schools than in the lowest density schools.”
  • “The achievement gap was not different [for black and white students].”

In other words, the higher the percent of Black students in a school, the lower the achievement scores were for both Black and White students. Why do you suppose that might be?  Here are some quotes from the article that might help explain:

  • “Schools that serve large percentages of Black students are more likely to employ less experienced teachers.”
  • “Schools with a higher percentage of students who are Black tend to have higher shares of low-socioeconomic-status students, who often need additional supports to be successful because Black students are more likely to be in a one-parent/guardian family, to be in a family in poverty, and to have parents with lower levels of education, compared with the parents of White students.”
  • “There is a body of work that explores whether negative educational outcomes, such as lower achievement, that are associated with large concentrations of Black students in schools might be due to an “oppositional culture,” which is a part of contemporary Black culture. This line of research considers student peer effects associated with larger concentrations of Black students where it has been theorized that certain behaviors that are associated with higher achievement are shunned because they involve learning to cope with pressures such as ‘the burden of acting White’.”
  • “Some researchers have considered whether teachers may also have lower expectations for student performance in schools with a high population of Black students, sometimes explained as a “Pygmalion effect.” This research is grounded in the assumption that lower expectations by teachers for students from minority backgrounds may result in lower levels of engagement by both teachers and students, which ultimately may contribute to poorer academic performance. One study found that in predominantly Black elementary schools, Black and White students tend to score lower and eventually are placed on a lower track in high school, and this tracking can start in elementary school.”
  • “At the high school level, some research shows that the tracking of Black students tends to differ by the density of Black students in the school. One study found that that Black students are more likely to be in high-track courses (e.g., taking algebra in the eighth grade rather than the ninth grade) in predominantly Black schools than in lower density schools. Another study found that even when controlling for achievement, more racial-ethnic and socioeconomic diversity are related to more “de facto” tracking.”
  • “The number of school disciplinary reports increases as the percentage of students in a school who are Black increases, and Black students are more likely than White students to face school discipline or office referrals (Rocque and Paternoster 2011), which is relevant because higher rates of out-of-school suspension are related with lower achievement.”

Based on these items, it would seem that there are many factors that could cause the achievement gap between schools that are predominantly Black and those that are predominantly White.  

The study also found that:
  • “Black students are, on average, in schools that are 48 percent Black, whereas White students are, on average, in schools that are 9 percent Black.”
  • “Schools in the highest Black student density category are mostly located in the South, with very few in the West.”
  • “Schools in the highest Black student density category are mostly in cities, but this varies by region.”
  • “Schools with higher Black student density also have higher percentages of students with low socioeconomic status.”

So, Black students are more likely to go to predominantly Black schools than White students are, schools in the South are more likely to be predominantly Black, and schools in cities are more likely to be predominantly Black than rural schools.  

But more significantly, there is a correlation between the density of Black students and the overall socioeconomic status of the school. Because a lot of previous research has shown a correlation between poverty and student achievement, it is possible that the connection between Black student density and student achievement could be based on their mutual connection to poverty.  

Because of this, the researchers went on to control for socioeconomic status (via regression analysis), and found that “the previously observed relationship between Black student density and achievement disappeared for Whites but not for Blacks.” When they controlled for socioeconomic status, student, teacher, and school characteristics, “ the achievement gap was greater among schools with the highest Black student density than the schools with the lowest.” So the achievement gap between Black and White students is higher in schools with a higher percent of Black students, even when controlling for poverty and the characteristics of the students, teachers, and schools.  

The study goes on to discuss differences in gender and between-school versus within-school differences.  

What does this all mean?

  • First, it again illustrates how complex issues like achievement gaps are, and points out how many interrelated factors are at work.  
  • Second, it tells us that the achievement gap between white and black students is worse in schools with a higher percent of black students, even when you control for many of the interrelated factors such as poverty.

When discussing education policy, we tend to talk a lot about students “in general” and try to think about education divorced from issues like race and poverty.  But the reality is that education is not simple or transparent, and it is important to take all factors into consideration.