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The Significance of Race in the Racial Gap
in Academic Achievement

by Pedro A. Noguera and Antwi Akom

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.

Pedro A. Noguera is a Professor in the graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Antwi Akom is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Once again national attention has been drawn to the phenomenon now commonly referred to as the racial gap in academic achievement. The issue has become particularly salient as states have adopted new exams in an effort to raise academic standards to hold schools and students accountable for their performance. Despite its many faults as an educational reform strategy, the advent of high stakes testing in states throughout the nation has focused attention to the long neglected issues surrounding student achievement.

The appearance of a racial gap in student achievement is by no means a new development. For years, evidence of disparities in achievement have shown up in test scores, grades, drop-out and graduation rates, and almost every relevant indicator of academic performance. However, more often than not, the presence of significant differences in measures of performance among African American, Latino, and Native American students who generally fall on the lower end of the achievement spectrum, with larger numbers of White and Asian students more likely to be found at the higher end, has been accepted as normal and unproblematic. The consistency of such patterns in almost every school and school district in the nation has the effect of reinforcing well established assumptions regarding the relationship between race, academic ability and intelligence. Nonetheless, despite lingering doubts about the abilities of certain children to learn, the new tests and the penalties that accompany them have focused attention on the racial achievement gap. In many cases the tests are also forcing schools to seriously examine how they educate children of color.

The drawbacks related to the new high stakes tests are not insignificant. In states such as California, the tests are generally not aligned to the curriculum which means that students are tested on material to which they may not have been exposed. The tests are also administered in English which means that over a third of the students in California are unable to comprehend the questions. The purpose of the tests also raises important questions for rather than providing teachers with useful diagnostic information on the abilities and skills of their students, the tests are typically used as a basis for ranking students and schools; a process which predictably results in poorer students and the schools that serve them being ranked at the bottom of the achievement ladder. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is growing concern among educators that the tests are being used to determine the content of what children learn in school, and that the content will be so limited and narrowly conceived that education will be reduced to preparing kids for tests while other purposes of education - encouraging critical thinking, creativity and intellectual curiosity will be abandoned.

Of course, the results obtained from achievement tests reflect more than just racial disparities. Most consistently, an analysis of test scores also reveals a close correspondence between the scores children obtain and broader patterns of social inequality within American society. With few exceptions, the children of the affluent out-perform children of the poor. However, what makes the racial gap unique is the fact that the benefits typically associated with middle-class status don't accrue to African American, and in many cases, Latino students. In many school districts, children of color from middle class, college educated families continue to lag significantly behind White students on most achievement measures. The performances of these relatively privileged students have brought renewed attention to the relationship between race and educational performance, an issue that historically has generated controversy and paralysis for those charged with figuring out what should be done.

Explaining why poor children of color perform comparatively less well in school is generally a less complicated matter. Consistently, such children are educated in schools that, on most measures of quality and funding, are woefully inadequate. This is particularly true in economically depressed urban areas, where bad schools are just one of several obstacles with which poor people must contend. In inner-city schools throughout the United States it has frequently been the case that schools are unable to provide consistent and reliable evidence that the children they serve are learning and provided quality education. Parents often perceive the public schools available to their children as hopeless and unresponsive to their needs, prompting many who can to opt for private schools to withdraw. For those who can not escape, a growing number of parents have actively sought alternatives via vouchers and various privatization schemes. The proliferation of these kinds of educational alternatives in cities such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Baltimore is yet another sign of the mounting pressure exerted by parents who are no longer willing to accept the status quo.

The stark inequities manifest in inner-city and some rural schools help to explain the low achievement rates of large numbers of poor children, a disproportionate number of whom are African American and Latino. Left unexplained is the lagging performance of middle class and poor African American and Latino children who have access to better schools. This is the question that has prompted fifteen racially integrated, affluent school districts to form a consortium known as the Minority Student Achievement Network. Comprised of districts located in communities such as White Plains, NY, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Berkeley, California, the network seeks to understand the causes of the racial achievement gap and to devise solutions for reversing it.

On the face of it, the potential for success in reducing the gap in these districts would seem to be high. All fifteen school districts in the network have a track record of sending large numbers of affluent White students to the best colleges and universities in the country. Additionally, unlike schools in high poverty areas, funding is largely not a major obstacle to reform. Each of the districts are located in affluent communities with highly educated populations known for their commitment to liberal political and social values. Yet, in all fifteen districts prospects for producing change are hampered by a deeply ingrained sense that even this ambitious, well intentioned effort will fail to alter student outcomes.

To a large degree, much of the pessimism in these districts and many others that have launched efforts to overcome the racial achievement gap can be attributed to the confusion surrounding the relationship between race and student achievement. Lack of clarity on these issues can be seen most clearly at the level of policy and practice. From a policy standpoint, most issues pertaining to race and education have historically centered on efforts to support racial integration in schools. For a variety of reasons, figuring out how to desegregate schools has taken precedence over the need to figure out how to serve the educational needs of a diverse student population. Policies born out of court orders have seldom been based on an understanding of sound educational practice. Moreover, even in the liberal districts in the Minority Student Achievement Network, (some of which were among the first in the nation to voluntarily de-segregate) the arrival of significant numbers of students of color in the late 60's and early 70's was met with considerable opposition. From the very beginning, the presence of African American children, especially those from low income families, was perceived as a "challenge" to which to respond because the children were typically perceived as disadvantaged and deficient in comparison to their white schoolmates. Framed as "problems" and "challenges" from the very start, it is hardly surprising that the education of students of color would continue to be treated as a problem requiring special interventions years later.

In addition to policy, educational practices often have the effect of favoring privileged students and hindering the educational opportunities of poorer students specifically, and African American and Latino students generally. This is particularly true with respect to the various strategies employed by schools to track and sort students on the basis of some measure of ability and acumen. A large body of research has shown that students of color are more likely to be excluded from classes for those deemed "gifted" in primary school, and from honors and advanced placement courses in high school. The Education Trust has shown, through its research on science and math education, that even students of color who meet the criteria for access to advanced courses are more likely to be restricted based on the recommendation of a counselor or teacher. They are also more likely to be placed in remedial and special education classes, and to be subject to varying forms of school discipline.

Beyond the policies and practices which contribute to the achievement gap, there are also a number of ambiguous cultural factors related to the attitudes and behaviors of students, the child rearing practices of parents, and the expectations and effectiveness of teachers, which also influence patterns of student achievement. Several studies have indicated that middle class African American and Latino students spend less time on homework and study in less effective ways than middle class White and Asian students. Also, despite the visibility of African American students in sports such as football and basketball, research shows that these students are less likely to be involved in extracurricular activities (which are shown to positively influence achievement) and in response to surveys, are more likely to emphasize the importance of being popular among friends than doing well in school.

Missing from the research and policy debates on the racial gap in student achievement is an understanding of the ways in which children come to perceive the relationship between their racial identities and what they believe they can do academically. For many children, schools play an important role in shaping their racial identities because they are one of the few social settings where they interact with people from different backgrounds. To the extent that a school's sorting process disproportionately relegates Black and Brown children to spaces that are perceived as negative and marginal, it is likely that children will come to perceive certain activities and courses as racially defined and therefore either suitable or off limits for them.

For example, in schools where few minority students are enrolled in advanced placement courses, even students who meet the criteria for enrollment may refuse to take such courses out of concern that they will become isolated from their peers. The same is true for the school band, newspaper, debating team or honor society. To the extent that these activities are perceived as the domain of White students, non-white students will be less likely to join. This occurs because peer groups play a large role in determining the academic orientation of students. The peer group with whom a student feels a sense of affinity can influence their style of clothes, manner of speech, and future career orientation. For middle-class African American and Latino students, this may mean that, despite receiving encouragement from their parents to do well in school, the peer group with whom they identify with may have stronger influence and push them in a different direction.

Finally, racial images rooted in stereotypes which diminish the importance of intellectual pursuits limit the aspirations of young African American and Latino students. Such images permeate American society and have an impact on attitudes toward school. Despite the odds of success in professional sports and entertainment, many young people believe that they have a greater chance of becoming a highly paid athlete or rap artist than an engineer, doctor or software programmer. Moreover, with the advent of roll backs on affirmative action policies at colleges and universities, there is little doubt that students who possess entertainment value, who can slam dunk or score touchdowns, will always be admitted regardless of their academic performance - even as aspiring doctors and lawyers are turned away.

When placed within the broader context of race relations in American society, the causes of the racial achievement gap appear less complex and mysterious; the gap is merely another reflection of the disparities in experience and life chances for individuals from different racial groups. In fact, given the history of racism in the United States, and the ongoing reality of racial discrimination, it would be even more surprising if an achievement gap did not exist. If the children of those who are most likely to be incarcerated, denied housing and employment, passed over for promotions, or harassed by the police did just as well in school as those whose lives are largely free of such encumbrances, this would truly be remarkable news. But this is not the case, and if we recognize that educational patterns generally mimic other social patterns, we should not be surprised.

However, lest recognition of the racial achievement gap drive us into greater despair about the prospects for eliminating racial inequality in America, we must also recognize that, to the extent that change is possible, it is more likely to occur in education than in any other sector. This is because, despite its faults, public education remains the most democratic and accessible institution in this country. In fact, in the post-welfare reform period, it is all that remains of the social safety net for poor children. Moreover, though the number of cases is small, there are schools where no achievement gap exists, and there are students who achieve at high levels despite the incredible odds against them. These bright spots of success provide us with a window through which we can examine what might be possible if we lived in a society that truly valued children and was genuinely committed to equity and high quality education for all.

We are living in a time in which politicians recognize that the public is deeply concerned about improving the quality of education. There could be no better time at which to raise issues related to inequality in funding and the need to focus upon expanding educational opportunities as a way of reducing social inequality. Clearly, public opinion on these issues is divided and few politicians will dare to even raise these issues. But for those who believe that education can serve as a source of hope and opportunity, the time is ripe for making our voices heard so that this historic opportunity is not missed.

Published in In Motion Magazine June 19, 2000.
Also published in The Nation.