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Volume 17, Number 3
May/June 2001

Closing the Gap One School at a Time

Teachers and administrators are becoming researchers as they work to narrow the black/white achievement gap in schools


Things finally seemed to be moving in the right direction. After years of wide, persistent gaps between the performance of black and white students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the 1970s saw the beginning of a turnaround. The gap began to narrow, and this trend continued through most of the 1980s. Christopher Jencks of Harvard University and Meredith Phillips of UCLA, editors of the 1998 book The Black-White Test Score Gap, noted that the reading gap between black and white 17-year-olds (as measured by the NAEP) had narrowed more than 40 percent from 1971 to 1994 and that the math gap had also narrowed, though less dramatically. Jencks and Phillips also saw hope in research showing that black students’ test performance responded well to changes in the social and cultural environment. In an editorial for Education Week, the researchers wrote, "Narrowing the test score gap would require continuous effort by both blacks and whites, and it would probably take more than one generation. But we think it can be done."

But data released in September 2000 show very different trends from those that seemed apparent just a few years earlier. While overall scores have increased in reading and mathematics, the differences in scores for black and white students in virtually every NAEP subject area and for every age group are greater than they were in the late 1980s. Perhaps even more disturbing, these gaps seem to be getting wider each year. Even when researchers control for socioeconomic status, level of parental education, and other factors that contribute to scholastic achievement, the score gap between white and black students persists, and no one is really sure why.

Of course, theories abound. Some researchers blame low standards, a lack of resources, and what they consider to be less-skilled teachers in schools that serve large numbers of black students. Others cite a change from the emphasis on basic skill development, which helped to boost scores of the lowest performing students in the 1970s and 1980s, to one on higher order skills, for which students may be less well prepared. Still other researchers insist that, despite controlled study, the effects of racism simply cannot be disentangled from the host of other economic and social factors that affect black students and their success in school.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

Reaching the Top: A Report of the National Task Force on Minority High Achievement. New York: College Board Publications, 1999.

C. Jencks and M. Phillips, eds. The Black-White Test Score Gap. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998.

R.C. Johnston and D. Viadero. "Unmet Promise: Raising Minority Achievement." Education Week, March 15, 2000: 1, 18–19.

R. F. Ferguson. "A Diagnostic Analysis of Black and White GPA Disparities in Shaker Heights, Ohio." Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2001. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, forthcoming.

S.T. Gregory, ed. The Academic Achievement of Minority Students: Perspectives, Practices, and Prescriptions. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.

D.J. Hoff. "Gap Widens Between Black and White Students on NAEP." Education Week, September 6, 2000: 6.

S. Jurich and S. Estes. Raising Academic Achievement: A Study of 20 Successful Programs. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum, 2001.

R.D. Kahlenberg. All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools Through Public School Choice. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2001.

Minority Student Achievement Network, Evanston Township High School, 1600 Dodge Ave., Evanston, IL 60204; 847-424-7000.

C. Steele. "A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance." American Psychologist 52, no. 6 (June 1997): 613–629.