In Education Week, a black lady reporter ponders a perennial question with less bigotry and hate than is the norm these days:
By Christina A. Samuels
January 7, 2020
My SAT scores might have remained a bit of trivia had I not become an education reporter. But my career has given me a reason to think a lot about testing, and what seems to be an intractable test-score gap between black students (as well as Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native students) and white and Asian students.
It sounds naive, but at the start of my career as an education reporter, I really wondered: Why is there such a big black-white test gap? I mean, I’m no genius, but I did OK. Why does this gulf never seem to close?
It’s becoming easier to look at the SATs, specifically, and say those scores don’t matter any more. Some of the nation’s most exclusive colleges and universities—Bowdoin, Wake Forest, the University of Chicago, and other well-respected liberal arts institutions—have become test-optional. It’s an ironic dismissal of a test that was originally created to bring equity to the college admissions process.
But the same ethnic and racial gaps exist across all kinds of tests, not just assessments for college admissions. One could argue that the SAT is too easily influenced by outside factors, such as test-prep classes. But students don’t prep for the National Assessment for Educational Progress, and the so-called “Nation’s Report Card” shows similar gaps.
Teachers have one of the closest views of student performance, and Education Week recently asked them what they believe are the factors that explain why white students, overall, perform better academically than black students. (The survey respondents were predominantly white, like the teaching population as a whole, with 20 to 30 years in the classroom.)
Due to education reforms in the 1990s to give students better teachers, the public school teaching profession at present has surprisingly little affirmative action (public school administration, in contrast, has a lot).
The teachers were given a number of factors to choose from: genetics, discrimination, school quality, student motivation, parenting, income levels, home environments, and neighborhood environments.
The explanation of student performance, those teachers said, rests primarily with the students and their parents. Three-quarters or more of respondents said that motivation, parenting, income, home environments, and neighborhood environments explained student academic gaps “somewhat,” “quite a lot,” or “extremely.”
Seventy-two percent said “school quality” was a major factor. A little less than half said that discrimination played a major role.
A notable minority, about 29 percent, said that genetics are somewhat to extremely significant in explaining academic gaps between black students and white students. (An even higher percentage of respondents, 38 percent, said genetics are a significant reason why Asian students in the aggregate have better academic outcomes than their white peers.)
I bet the ~25% of teachers who said yes on both the white-black and Asian-white gaps having a genetic component are likely to give better practical advice on how to improve schooling than are the True Believers. Of course, any study that searched out courageous realist teachers to find out their advice would likely turn into a Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom (and then chop them off) situation.
But “black” is as much a social construct as it is a matter of genetic heritage: I have two black parents and call myself black. So does Barack Obama, who has one white parent. So does Kamala Harris, a U.S. senator from California, who has one parent from India. The category of “black” is fluid, as are other racial and ethnic categories—and geneticists agree that we are more different from each other as individuals, than we are as populations grouped by “race.”
Okay, but that actually works in the opposite direction. A lot of people who use this argument don’t realize that the fact that self-identified blacks include lots of people with substantial white ancestry, some of them high scorers like Barack Obama, would tend to narrow the test score gap.
I was defensive and annoyed when I analyzed the results of this survey. “It’s not our fault!” seemed to be the takeaway from teachers, but kids spend up to 13 years of their lives in school. Of course what happens there is relevant.
But I have to acknowledge some truth in what these teachers are saying. Yes, it mattered that my parents were middle-class, college-educated folks who filled my childhood home with books.
She ends up focusing on wealth as an explanation, which doesn’t really do it. But I appreciate the general tone of the article, which is much more civil and sensible than is common in 2020.