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The black-white achievement gap refers to disparities between African American (black) and European American (white) students on educational outcomes that include standardized test scores, grade-point averages, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment and completion rates. On each of these measures, white students typically outperform their black peers. While scholars have studied the gap in standardized test scores since the early 1900s, interest in this topic reemerged in the 1990s partly in response to a widening of the gap on the National Assessment of Education Progress in the United States after it had narrowed for nearly 20 years. This renewed interest also arose partly in response to the publication of the controversial book The Bell Curve, by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994), which suggested that the gap resulted from genetic differences between racial groups.
Genetic arguments have been rejected convincingly by research in which scholars identify multiple methodological flaws in such work and point out that the lack of systematic genetic variation across racial categories undermines such arguments. Other explanations for the racial achievement gap, however, have empirical support. For example, racial differences in social class as measured by parents’ education, income, and wealth explain a substantial portion of the gap in test scores and educational attainment. Additionally, research shows that black and white students receive different opportunities to learn, even when attending desegregated schools, and that these differences contribute to the gap. Black students are typically placed in lower-ability groups and educational tracks, are overrepresented in special education, are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, are taught by less experienced and less well trained teachers, and face lower teacher expectations regarding their academic potential than white students.
Additional explanations focus on psychological and cultural mechanisms associated with the gap. For instance, the stereotype threat model devised by the psychologist Claude Steele (b. 1946) demonstrates that black college students underperform on academic tasks because they fear being viewed through the lens of negative racial stereotypes about black intelligence or are apprehensive about confirming such negative stereotypes through poor test performance. Stereotype threat may lead to a process called disidentification, in which black students’ personal identities become disconnected from education as a domain, leading to underachievement. More research, however, is needed to further test this hypothesis.
The oppositional culture argument provides a related explanation for the black-white achievement gap. Perhaps best articulated by the anthropologist John Ogbu (1939–2003) and his colleagues—for example, in the contribution to Urban Review, “Black Students’ School Success” (Fordham and Ogbu 1986)—this perspective suggests that black students respond to race-based educational and employment discrimination by opposing educational achievement. As a result, high-achieving black students may confront negative feedback from their peers for investing in school and receive criticism for “acting white.” While this has been an influential explanation for the gap in scholarly and popular discourse, recent research rejects its core hypotheses. Finally, while no scholarly consensus exists, some research suggests that schools, as institutions, respond favorably to and reward white students’ cultural styles (such as dress, linguistic practices, and learning styles) and devalue those of black students, perhaps contributing to the gap.
Why Did The Gap Close?
It is unclear why the test-score gap narrowed between 1970 and 1988. However, work suggests that greater access to educational resources among black students, reductions in class size, and racial desegregation efforts may have contributed to this pattern. The gap persists in desegregated schools, however, probably because of racial inequalities in opportunities to learn in such contexts. Likewise, aggressive efforts to challenge systematic racial discrimination in educational and employment opportunities following the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s may have led to greater optimism about the economic returns to education among African Americans and increased their already high levels of motivation for educational achievement.
- Ainsworth-Darnell, James W., and Douglas B. Downey. 1998. Assessing the Oppositional Culture Explanation for Racial/Ethnic Differences in School Performance. American Sociological Review 63 (4): 536–553.
- Cook, Philip J., and Jens Ludwig. 1997. Weighing the “Burden of ‘Acting White’ ”: Are There Race Differences in Attitudes toward Education? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16 (2): 256–278.
- Fordham, Signithia, and John U. Ogbu. 1986. Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the “Burden of ‘Acting White.’ ” Urban Review 18 (3): 176–206.
- Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. 1994. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.
- Jacoby, Russell, and Naomi Glauberman, eds. 1995. The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions. New York: Times Books.
- Jencks, Christopher, and Meredith Phillips, eds. 1998. The Black-White Test Score Gap. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- Steele, Claude. 2003. Stereotype Threat and African American Student Achievement. In Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African American Students, eds. Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa G. Hilliard III, 109–130. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Tyson, Karolyn, William Darity, and Domini R. Castellino. It’s Not “a Black Thing”: Understanding the Burden of Acting White and Other Dilemmas of High Achievement. American Sociological Review 70 (4): 582–605.
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