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Black-White Test Score Gap Is Not Inevitable

Education: We can't accept racial inequality just because the traditional paths have failed to make significant inroads.

September 28, 1998|CHRISTOPHER JENCKS and MEREDITH PHILLIPS | Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips have co-edited "The Black-White Test Score Gap," a collection of studies soon to be published by the Brookings Institution. Jencks teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Phillips teaches at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research. This article is adapted from the September-October issue of the American Prospect magazine

African Americans currently score lower than European Americans on vocabulary, reading and math tests as well as on tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. This gap appears before children enter kindergarten and it persists into adulthood. It has narrowed since 1970, but the average American black still scores below 75% of American whites on most standardized tests.

In a country as racially polarized as the United States, no single change taken in isolation could eliminate the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow or usher in an era of full racial equality. But if that is America's goal, reducing the black-white test score gap would probably do more to promote it than any other politically plausible strategy. Reducing the gap would almost certainly reduce racial inequality in educational attainment and earnings--and in much that flows from them.

This was not true a generation ago. The best evidence about what happened back then to black workers with high test scores came from a study by Phillips Cutright that analyzed the 1964 earnings of men who had taken the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) in the early 1950s. Even black men with AFQT scores above the national average earned less than two-thirds of what whites earned. In such a world, eliminating racial differences in test performance would not have reduced the earnings gap very much.

Today, the situation is different. The best recent data show that by 1993 black men who scored above the national average on the AFQT were earning only 4% less than whites with similar scores. In this new world, raising black workers' test scores looks far more important than it did in the 1960s.

Reducing the black-white test score gap would reduce racial disparities in educational attainment as well. The nationwide "High School and Beyond" survey tested 12th-graders in 1982 and followed them up in 1992, when they were in their late 20s. At the time of the follow-up, only 13.3% of the blacks had earned a bachelor's degree compared to 30% with the non-Latino whites.

Many observers blame this disparity on black parents' inability to pay college bills, black students' lack of motivation or the hostility that black students encounter on predominantly white college campuses. All these factors probably play some role. Nonetheless, when we compare blacks and whites with the same 12th-grade test scores, blacks are more likely than whites to complete college. Once we equalize test scores, a 16.7% disadvantage in college graduation rates for blacks turns into a 5.9% advantage.

Advocates of racial equality might be more willing to accept our argument that narrowing the test score gap is crucial to achieving their goals if they believed that narrowing the gap was feasible. But pessimism on this front has become almost universal.

In the 1960s, racial egalitarians routinely blamed the test score gap on the combined effects of black poverty and racial segregation. Experience since then has demonstrated that the gap shrinks only a little when black and white children attend the same schools. It also shrinks only a little when black and white families have the same amount of schooling, the same income and the same wealth.

But this does not mean that the black-white test score gap is inevitable. Despite endless speculation, no study has found direct genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less innate intellectual ability than whites. While it is clear that eliminating the test score gap would require enormous effort by both blacks and whites and would probably take more than one generation, it can be done.

This conviction rests mainly on two facts.

First, IQ and achievement scores are not fixed. Scores on IQ tests have risen dramatically throughout the world since the 1930s. For example, the average white scored higher on the Stanford-Binet test in 1978 than 82% of whites who took the test in 1932.

Second, black-white differences in academic achievement have, in fact, narrowed throughout the 20th century. The best data come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has been testing 17-year-olds since 1971. From 1971 to 1996, the black-white reading gap shrank by almost half and the math gap by a third.

The question now is not whether the gap can be further reduced but how to do it. The answer will most likely center on schooling and culture.

While the major studies of the late 1960s concluded that a school's resources had little impact on student achievement, new statistical methods, new data and a handful of experiments now suggest that resources do matter. This cannot in itself explain the black-white achievement gap because most school resources are now fairly equally distributed between blacks and whites. But certain crucial resources, like teachers with high test scores, are still unequally distributed. And other resources, like small classes and teachers with high expectations, seem to raise blacks' test scores more than whites'.

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