Why is There a Racial Achievement Gap?

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Sometimes the most racist aspects of a society are right there in front of you, but no one seems to notice.


Take the racial achievement gap.


It’s a term used to describe the fact that black and Latino students don’t do as well academically as white students.


Why does it even exist?


Why do students of color in the United States achieve less than their white peers?


They have worse grades, lower test scores, meager graduation rates and fewer achieve advanced degrees.


As of 2018, they had the lowest mean score of any racial group on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).


And it’s been like that for more than half a century.


In 1964, a Department of Education report found that the average black high school senior scored below 87% of white seniors (in the 13 percentile). Fifty years later, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that black seniors had narrowed the gap until they were merely behind 81% of white seniors (scoring in the 19th percentile).


So what does that mean?


It’s a question that has haunted our education system for more than a century.


And the various answers that have been offered to explain it often reveal more about our society than they do about black and Latino children.


CLAIM 1: People of color are just genetically inferior



I know. This sounds glaringly racist.


And it is.


Yet this was the favorite answer for the achievement gap at the start of the 20th Century (More on that later).


However, it has been espoused as recently as 1995 by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve where the authors attributed relative black failure and low socio-economic status to biological inadequacy.


Murray and Herrnstein sparked such an intense academic debate at the time that the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a Task Force on Intelligence. Instead of soundly disproving this theory, the resulting APA report could come to no definite conclusion: “At this time, no one knows what is responsible for the differential,” the authors wrote.


Today the idea that people of color are genetically inferior has been soundly defeated.


There is simply no evidence that racial characteristics are strongly correlated with intelligence.


If it were true, for example, you’d expect to see the same achievement gap from native born Africans immigrating to this country as those who are born in the US. But that is not the case. In fact, we see just the opposite effect – a sizable percentage of African immigrants earn some of the best grades, have some of the highest test scores, and disproportionately graduate from high school and achieve advanced degrees.


This is something that distinguishes foreign-born Africans – especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa – even from other immigrants. African immigrants sit near the top of the scale of so-called model minorities.


If the problem was mere genes, this wouldn’t be so.


CLAIM 2: America’s people of color are culturally inferior


You’d think it would be obvious how racist such a claim is, but it is an increasingly popular explanation of the achievement gap.


In The End of Racism, popular conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza blamed the racial accomplishment gap on black cultural defects. “[T]he old discrimination” has declined and been replaced by “rational discrimination” based “on accurate group generalizations,” wrote D’Souza.


In other words, it’s not genes, but pathological community values that keep many people of color at the bottom. Black and brown students would do better in school if their culture fostered hard work, determination, grit and valued learning. They’d learn more if their parents weren’t always in jail or having innumerable children to increase their food stamp benefits.


From a purely ideological standpoint, this is textbook racism – the belief that some racially defined groups are in some sense better or worse than others.


It’s the minstrel show as case study. It boils down the attributes of 40 million people to mere stereotypes and pretends that they’re real.


The truth is most people of color don’t fit the corny clichés. In the real world, most black folks do not commit crime, only about 6 percent of unmarried black women give birth each year, and most black people are not recipients of welfare benefits. Indeed, fewer than 200,000 black adults in the entire US currently receive cash welfare benefits from the government. That’s out of about 30 million black adults in all. So these are not cultural norms.


Furthermore, black crime rates, out-of-wedlock birthrates, and welfare dependence have gone down in recent years, while white rates have increased.


Such claims show more about those making them than the people the claims are supposed to be about. When a black person struggles, the cause is assumed to be a deeply ingrained cultural attribute. When the same happens to white people, it’s an anomaly.


For instance, in the 80’s and 90’s the media blamed black culture and black communities for the crack epidemic. But today those same talking heads excuse the mostly white and rural opioid crisis as an aberration. No one seems to claim that it is because the white family is breaking down or white culture is in decline.


Black families are disproportionately poor and thus suffer higher rates of everything that comes with it.


But this is not an artifact of their culture anymore than it is for poor whites.


CLAIM 3: People of color experience higher rates of poverty and thus struggle more academically.


Finally we have a claim based in fact and not racial stereotypes!


When we look at test scores, like those on the NAEP, we see that state racial achievement gaps are strongly correlated with state racial socioeconomic disparities.


Poor people achieve worse academic outcomes than wealthier people. And this is true across race and ethnicity.


It just makes sense. Living in poverty means less access to healthcare, neonatal care, pre-kindergarten, and fewer books in the home. It often means fewer educated family members to serve as a model. And it often means suffering from malnutrition and psychological trauma. Impoverished parents usually have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet and thus have less time to help with homework or see to their children. All of this has a direct impact on education.


The fact that a larger percentage of people of color are poor, helps explain the disparity of achievement between races.


The fact that achievement gaps tend to be largest in places where racial socioeconomic disparities are largest, supports this theory. Moreover, in neighborhoods with greater socioeconomic equality, the racial achievement gap is likewise smaller or nonexistent.


Achievement gaps are strongly correlated with racial gaps in income, poverty rates, unemployment rates, and educational attainment.


However, poverty, alone, does not explain away the problem.


Even when racial disparities are few and far between (typically in states with small black and/or Hispanic populations), the gap can persist.


We shouldn’t discount poverty. It goes a long way to explaining the problem. It just doesn’t go all the way.


CLAIM 4: Racist policies and bias widen the achievement gap


There are numerous factors that can adversely affect achievement for children of color above and beyond poverty. These include the availability and quality of early childhood education, the quality of public schools, patterns of residential and school segregation, and state educational and social policies.


For example, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board, school segregation is still a problem. In fact, in many parts of the country, they are actually more segregated today than they were at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.


According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation has more than doubled nationwide. That’s twice the number of schools comprised almost entirely of students living in high poverty and/or students of color.


The number went from 7,009 to 15,089 schools. And that’s just the worst offenders – schools with more than three quarters of students from only one race or class. Throughout the country there are thousands more schools not as extreme but still serving mostly poor and/or minority students, and thus receiving fewer resources, more teacher layoffs, dealing with larger classes and crumbling infrastructure.


Even where segregation isn’t a problem, racist policies can creep into the academic culture.


A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that black students in K-12 schools are far more likely to be disciplined — whether through suspension or referral to law enforcement — than their racial counterparts.


A 2014 study found that people generally view black boys as older and less innocent starting at the age of 10. Another study released in 2017 produced similar results, finding that Americans overall view black girls as less innocent and more mature for their age, from ages 5 to 14.


These have real world consequences for children’s academic development. If even well-meaning (and mostly white) teachers are more likely to see children of color as potential trouble makers, that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And kids who are in trouble often have more difficulty making the grade.


Finally, there is the influence of charter and voucher schools, many of which target their enrollment at students of color.


These are schools that are (at least in part) publicly funded but privately managed. They are not required to have nearly the same transparency as traditional public schools, don’t have to be democratically controlled and can often be run for a profit.


They can cut services to students on a whim and if students struggle, they can give them the boot forcing them to try to catch up at the local public school.


These practices are so worrying that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Black Lives Matter have both called for a moratorium on all new charter schools. Journey for Justice has gone even further with a call for more community schools.


Bias and policies like these can have a big impact on students, but we haven’t even discussed the largest culprit.


CLAIM 5: The standardized testing industry is essentially biased


We’ve talked a lot about why there’s a racial achievement gap.


We haven’t talked that much about if.


You have to admit, it’s counterintuitive to think that there should be academic hierarchies based on race. One race is better than others at school? Really? Isn’t that, itself, a racist assumption?


If there is no evidence for genetic or social differences along racial lines, can we explain everything else by way of socioeconomics and racist policies?


Perhaps. But even more so, we need to question the mechanism that started this whole debate in the first place – standardized testing.



That is the primary mechanism used to determine if there is a racial achievement gap at all.


If that mechanism is biased, so is the result.


This is particularly troubling for an industry that was built on the eugenicist premises with which we started this article.


Standardized testing, as we know it, originates from the work of Francis Galton – Charles Darwin’s cousin and an English statistician. In 1869, he wrote in Hereditary Genius that “[t]he average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.” Galton nearly invented the western eugenics movement, but couldn’t find a method to test his theories.


Enter France’s Alfred Binet and Thodore Simon. In 1905 they developed an IQ test that 11 years later was revised by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman for use in America.


In his book, The Measurement of Intelligence, Terman wrote that these “experimental” tests will show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture.”


For Terman, the achievement gap wasn’t a problem. It was a feature he was actively trying to prove, and he thought he had done so with his experiments on 1.7 million U.S. servicemen in World War I.


His deeply biased work convinced a generation of scholars. Princeton University psychologist Carl C. Brigham presented the results as evidence of genetic racial hierarchy in A Study of American Intelligence – merely three years before he used these same ideas to craft the SAT test in 1926.


Though that same SAT test has been revised since Brigham’s time, the fundamental principals behind it remain the same. Along with the PSAT, it was taken by more than 6.7 million students in the 2015-16 school year.


The ideals of the eugenicists lost popularity after World War II, but they were by no means finished. Famed physicist William Shockley and educational psychologist Arthur Jensen carried these concepts into the 1960s before they were revived again in The Bell Curve in the ‘90s.


These are not just bugs in the system. They are what the system was meant to prove in the first place.


Our worship of the data has made us all unwitting accomplices of an ideal that is prejudiced in its axioms.


By defining academic success or failure primarily as success or failure on standardized tests, we’ve effectively barred generations of children of color from the benefits of an education. And in using these same tests for “accountability” purposes to reward or punish their schools by granting or denying resources, high stakes testing has become the academic gatekeeper. Biased assessments have been used to grant real world opportunity.


How many opportunities have been denied because of them? How many black and brown children have been denied entry to college, professions, graduate schools, jobs, places at the highest ranked schools?


How many young black and brown children have been convinced of their own ignorance because of a test score of dubious quality?




So we return to the question with which we began this article:


Why is there a racial achievement gap?


The answer is NOT because of genetic or cultural deficiencies in children of color.


The gap stems from a combination of disproportionate levels of poverty among black and brown people, racist bias and policies embedded in our public school system and – more than anything else – reliance on a flawed assessment system.


If we want to really close the achievement gap, we must do several things. First, we must continually discredit and criticize the genetic and social critique of racial minorities at the heart of the conservative movement.


Next, we must create a more just and equitable education system. This means fairly funding our schools. We must increase integration. We must halt the spread of charter and voucher schools. We need to make sure all our teachers and principals have cultural sensitivity training and increase the numbers of teachers of color in our school system.


And we must get rid of our system of standardized testing.


It’s a tall order, but that’s the only way to close an even more pressing gap – the gap between our reality and our ideals.



Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!


37 thoughts on “Why is There a Racial Achievement Gap?

  1. Even the international PISA test reveals that children living in poverty in every country do not perform in school as well as children that do not live in poverty. Color or race does not matter. Poverty is the primary culprit.

    “The report also found:

    “There is an achievement gap between more and less disadvantaged students in every country; surprisingly, that gap is smaller in the United States than in similar post-industrial countries, and not much larger than in the very highest scoring countries.”


    Liked by 2 people

  2. You noted that there is a racial (and gender) achievement gap in teacher assigned grades at the beginning of the post, but you seem to have left it out of the rest of the discussion. Does the racial achievement gap in teacher assigned grades also stem from racist policies and the flawed assessment system used by the teachers?


    • If I’m being honest, TE, some of it is due to teacher prejudice. You can’t have mostly white teachers in a school serving mostly black kids and avoid cultural preconceptions – as I noted in the article. However, you have to understand how much high stakes standardized testing drives the curriculum in many schools. My daughter literally had a homework assignment in kindergarten where she had to practice filling in bubbles. Too many administrators (and overzealous teachers) buy into the testing and it perverts everything we do. When kids are graded on test prep, all bets are off.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Steven,

        At least in my district a student’s grades (and graduation) depend entirely on the classroom teacher’s evaluation of the student. Do standardized exams influence the GPA of students in your district? Graduation?

        Don’t forget the gender component as well. There was a good column in the NYT about this relatively recently: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/10/upshot/teacher-diversity-effect-students-learning.html

        Finally, is it your opinion that there is no racial achievement gap and the difference in standardized exam scores between racial groups is an artifact of flawed test design or is it that there is a racial achievement gap and that standardized tests do not give a good measure of that gap? If it is the latter, do you have something that we might use instead to measure the extent of the racial achievement gap?


      • TE, you live in a lucky district. Very few teachers have that much control over their students grades anymore. Every year I lose more and more (Hence my previous article on Teacher Autonomy). We are increasingly told what to teach, when to teach it and how it must be assessed. Last year was the first year my district used a nutty metric to determine passing or failing that only took the grade I calculated as a single factor. And when teachers are forced to include innumerable PSSA practice tests in the classroom grade, I can’t claim full responsibility for it. Many teachers are forced to give practice test after practice test, to use canned curriculum from the testing companies (Common Core aligned!). And the results become part of the grade the teacher has to calculate. You have no idea what’s going on in our schools, TE.

        As to gender, I never brought it up. You did. I’m focusing on race in this article.

        My thesis is that the racial achievement gap has many causes – inequitable resources and racist policies among them. But the fact that the standardized test that assess and dominate the curriculum are essentially biased is hugely important. It is not everything, but it is a major factor. That’s all I’m trying to say. The gap is imposed on people of color. It is not a natural expression of their abilities or worth.

        Liked by 1 person

      • There are conservative GOP teaches and some of them voted for Trump. Most if not all of the teachers that are prejudiced are probably in that group.

        “Forty one percent of respondents described themselves as Democrats while another 30 percent said they were independents. Just 27 percent were Republicans.

        “Half the respondents voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Another 29 percent voted for Trump. Thirteen percent selected a third-party candidate.

        ” By and large, educators aren’t fans of school choice—even if they voted for Trump, who made it a signature issue. A plurality of all those surveyed—45 percent—”fully oppose” charter schools, while another 26 percent “somewhat oppose” them. And 58 percent don’t support using government funds to help students cover the cost of private school, while 19 percent said they “somewhat oppose” vouchers.”


        Liked by 1 person

      • Steven,

        My apologies for the late response. It has been a busy week.

        It seems to me that you are conflating the scores that are produced by standardized exams and the test prep that teachers spend time doing in class. These are two separate issues.

        If the scores produce the wrong portrait of a racial achievement gap, they are at least consistent with teacher assigned grades and high school graduation rates: Asian Americans are the highest on all these measures and African Americans are lowest. There is lots of evidence far beyond standardized test scores of an achievement gap going back well before standardized scores were considered.

        If it is the test preparation that you think is producing this gap, I think you need to provide an argument that this preparation deferentially impacts Asian Americans and African Americans.

        I also think that you can not ignore the interaction of gender and race in education. The gap between male and female high school graduation rates in California, for example, is nearly non-existent for Asian Americans and largest for African Americans. The GPA gap reflects the same differences. You have rightfully ruled out genetic differences as an explanation for differences in academic performance, so we are left with your claim number 4 and number 5 to explain both the gender and race gap.

        Information about race and gender high school graduation rates can be found here: http://cdrpsb.org/statisticalbrief-20.pdf?file=statisticalbrief-20.pdf


      • TE, you are wrong that test scores and test prep are separate issues. If teachers are forced to give students look-a-like questions and grade them in their responses, that is directly related to the tests these prep assignments are mimicking. I think you need to ask to sit in on some public school classes in a struggling neighborhood. You need to see what really goes on there. Otherwise you’re just pontificating from on high.

        As to a gender gap in test scores, let me ask – why is their a gender gap in handwriting? Why do boys on average have sloppier handwriting than girls? The answer seems to be developmental. Girls and boys on average are just ready for different things at different times. But that’s really a separate issue.

        As to Asian Americans, let me ask – can they trace their ancestry to specific countries in Asia? Yes. Usually they can. Does the same apply to people of color? No. Usually it does not. American slavery wiped out this connection. That has a significant impact. Moreover, Asians (as a group) are made up of more recent immigrants than most people of color. And the culture they bring with them is already test obsessed. The high suicide rates in Asian countries as a direct result of high stakes testing (which we’re importing here) is part of that equation.


  3. […] Living in poverty means less access to healthcare, neonatal care, pre-kindergarten, and fewer books in the home. It often means fewer educated family members to serve as a model. And it often means suffering from malnutrition and psychological trauma. Impoverished parents usually have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet and thus have less time to help with homework or see to their children. All of this has a direct impact on education. — Gadflyonthewallblog […]


  4. In Minneapolis MN, the public school district maintains a large pool of newly hired teachers who are heavily assigned to schools where black students are greatly over-represented. Current figures are not available, however, when data related to teacher retention has been released during the past 20 years, it was revealed that a large majority of teachers are discharged or quit during their 3 year probationary period. An NEA study from 2004 indicated that two-thirds of public school teachers with less than 5 years of experience were employed at schools where African American and Puerto Rican Students are over-represented.

    I reviewed Minnesota’s teacher tenure laws, and found the following: The first teacher tenure act in Minnesota was passed in 1926. From 1926 to 1960 only teachers in “first class cities” (currently about 10 cities with a population over 100,000) had a 3 year probationary period which empowered the school district to discharge teachers “as they see fit.” Elsewhere in the state, all teachers had due process rights and protections against arbitrary dismissal beginning with their date of hire. Then a special tenure law was enacted for first class cities as probationary periods were established, initially one year for first time teachers, then 2 years and eventually 3 years for all teachers. Since the 1970s, limited job protections and limited due process rights were added to provisions for probationary periods that differed in some respects between first class cities and other localities, such as clear rules governing layoffs with recall rights for all teachers in school districts outside of first class cities, the right to a hearing to contest a discharge for cause for probationary teachers in districts outside of first class cities. In first class cities, decisions to not retain a teacher are supposed to be based on the recommendation of a peer-review committee and there are also provisions for peer review committees outside of first class cities.

    Until 2011, all probationary teachers in Minneapolis were given layoff notices in April of every year, which allowed them to accept jobs with other school districts and about two-thirds of teachers reportedly left the employ of the Minneapolis School District for jobs in suburban school districts during their 3 year probationary period. The layoff notices were issued before the deadline for giving notice to probationary teachers that their employment would be continued into the next year. The district’s lawyer claimed that state law required the April lay off notice, but in fact a lay off notice can be issued at any time (as demonstrated by mass layoffs during the early part of the school year in 2003. An April notice is required if a teacher is to be discharged for poor performance that does not rise to the level of misconduct. The law gives existing employees priority over new hires in filling positions and in theory prohibits the replacement of any laid off teacher with a new hire unless the laid off teacher turned down an offer of continued employment.

    From what I have seen and heard, the teachers’ union does little or nothing to defend the rights of probationary teachers and has never publicly opposed the school district’s actions that produce a large pool of new hires each year. Many teachers’ actually support the districts’ efforts to maintain a large pool of probationary teachers as a cost containment measure, as asserted by district leaders from time to time. However, what is saved in payroll costs is likely more than offset by higher costs of recruitment and training for newly hired teachers and higher special Ed costs related to poor outcomes for students who are heavily exposed to inexperience and newly hired teachers, low teacher morale, and a highly scripted and watered-down, test-prep curriculum.

    Teacher evaluations linked to student test scores give the least experienced teachers a motive to rely on the highly scripted curriculum with off-the-shelf lesson plans, and even more experienced teachers use the off-the-shelf lesson plans as a reference because their evaluation is based on student test scores aligned to the curriculum that is being tested. A lot of time outside of paid working hours must be spent to evaluate the students and to enrich the curriculum in addition to minimally required prep work that can’t be done on the clock. Inexperienced teachers in schools with super-high teacher turnover are in an exceptionally stressful position. The super-high teacher turnover is chronic only in schools with student poverty rates and where there are few white student enrolled. Black teachers are heavily assigned to these “tough” schools and therefore vulnerable to being discharged or forced to quit. Retention rates for teachers of all “races” and ethnicities are going to be lower in schools that primarily serve low income students of color because school policies are designed to have that effect.


    • What you are saying speaks of one factor of the racial achievement gap which is higher poverty rates for Black and Latino children but that is not the only factor because statistics and data show that across all levels of income there are achievement gaps. Also, this is across all school districts both wealthy, poor, racially integrated and economically integrated.


      • Pranav, there is a direct link between poverty and test scores. It’s the number one predictor of test scores. That should not be ignored. But, yes, even black students with higher SES don’t always have the same level of scores as their white counterparts. But this can be accounted for by numerous other factors like low expectations, lack of prioritizing education at home, lack of books in the home, lack of positive role models, negative societal attitudes for blacks who are educated, etc.


      • There is racial discrimination in the school system driven by allegedly “color-blind” policy decisions, such as those that result in black and puerto Rican students having about 10 times the exposure to newly hired and inexperienced teachers as white students, on average. This is true for wealthier urban school districts, such as Minneapolis, MN. The racial test score gap is partly a reflection of the effects of poverty. However, tests of school readiness by race for 5 year old, when adjusted for income showed little difference by race. Racial achievement gaps grow as students move up grade levels in part because of the effects of curriculum tracking / ability grouping and racial disparities in exposure to inexperienced, provisionally licensed and newly hired teachers. I stood for election to the Minneapolis MN School Board 11 times on a platform of 1) bringing teacher turnover rates to low levels in all schools, largely by providing probationary teachers stronger protections against arbitrary discharge and firings disguised as “layoffs.” 2) eliminating watered-down curriculum tracks, which goes hand in hand with stabilizing the teacher staff district-wide. 3) educating special Ed students in the least restrictive social environment possible. The harm done to children who are heavily exposed to newly hired teachers and less experienced / inexperienced teachers includes more students falling behind academically and getting dumped into special Ed, especially for behavioral, emotional and social disorders. On the whole, black kids are not so damaged by their out-of-school environment as you might think, if you attribute all racial disparities in test scores and other outcomes to “other than school” factors. In Minneapolis, the teachers’ union has never publicly opposed, and one of its presidents even endorsed maintaining a big pool of newly hired teachers, many inexperienced. The administration and board members have claimed that the district can’t afford high retention rates for probationary teachers. But keeping a big pool of low paid teachers requires more money spent on recruitment and training of new teachers, and more money spent on special Ed. Keeping a big pool of new hires doesn’t necessarily reduce overall operating costs and is inequitable and illegal: it has a disparate effect on marginalized students of color and poor whites. However, civil rights laws are not being enforced by the Federal or State governments when it comes to “colorblind” race discrimination.


      • Doug, I hear you. I see much of what you describe happening in districts across western Pennsylvania, too. However, you aren’t allowing for how much these factors are controlled and motivated by the standardized testing and school privatization industry. Why do you think tracking is the way it is, for instance? It’s entirely organized around test scores and maximizing those scores. The same with the funding inequality that keeps the schools serving large quantities of minorities from hiring and retaining experienced teachers. You neglected to mention Teach for America and how these same forces prescribe inexperienced temps to teach these same classes of mostly minority students. As to your attack on your local union, I find it highly unlikely. Unions don’t make hiring decisions. Administration and the school board do. I don’t mean to contradict your lived experience but if that’s what’s really happened, administration and the board are dropping the ball. Big time.


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