WHERE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAPS ARE: Large achievement gaps remain!


Part 2 in this series

Part 3—Where the NAEP gaps are: Way back when, in an essay for Slate, Richard Rothstein, an actual education expert, described the "truly spectacular gains" which had been recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), our one reliable domestic testing program.

To all appearances, Rothstein isn't a public relations expert. His remarks appeared in paragraph 15 on an 18-paragraph report. Because of the way our press corps works, few people have heard a single word about these "spectacular gains:"
ROTHSTEIN (8/29/11): The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago...The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning.
Say what? "The numbers show that...black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago?" Was there any possible way that could have been correct?

Rothstein was referring to scores on the NAEP's Grade 4 math test. (In its most widely-cited component, the NAEP tests students in Grade 4 and Grade 8 in reading and math.) And sure enough! As of 2007, black fourth-graders were scoring higher in math than white fourth-graders had scored in math in 1990 and in all the years before that. See our previous report.

Rothstein also seemed to be right in his subjective assessment. Unless something is "wrong" with the NAEP data, black fourth-graders actually had recorded "spectacular gains" over the previous twenty years. That said, very few people have ever heard any such facts, mainly because because of the way the contemptuous, incompetent the press corps handles such facts.

Unfortunately, Rothstein was also right about another fact. Despite the "spectacular gains" recorded by the nation's black kids, "test score gaps had barely narrowed" in the years under review. As Rothstein noted, that was because the nation's white kids had also recorded large score gains in Grade 4 math in the years since 1990.

The black-white "achievement gap" had narrowed in the years since 1990. But because both groups had recorded large gains, the black-white achievement gap had only narrowed a bit. The black-white achievement gap remained, though at a substantially higher achievement level.

If you read the national press, you will be exposed to one part of that story. You'll hear about the achievement gaps. You will hear nothing—nothing at all—about the "spectacular gains."

Did black kids record "spectacular gains" in the twenty years under review? An unpleasant person would say that your national press corps displays contempt for those good, decent kids, and for its adult readers, who are provided half the news about those deserving children.

Very few people have ever heard about those "spectacular gains." To all appearances, Bill Keller had never heard a word about them. In a New York Times column which appeared two weeks before Rothstein's essay, he wrote that the United States had recently experienced "decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education."

Keller's claim was hard to square with Rothstein's account of "spectacular gains." What explains his gloomy claim?

Keller had been executive editor of the Times during much of the period under review. His puzzling account of those "embarrassing decades" reflected the way his paper reports, and also hides, the basic facts about our public schools.

Alas! In a remarkable sleight-of-hand, the New York Times, like other news orgs, reports the gaps—but disappears the gains! Readers are told about the persistence of the gaps; their persistence is said to show that the public schools have failed.

Readers aren't told about the "spectacular gains" which underlie this dynamic. In an era of script-driven "journalism," this constitutes one of the mainstream press corps' most striking sleights-of-hand.

Make no mistake! Yes, the score gains have been large. But the achievement gaps are large and very important too. The gaps represent only one part of a two-part story. But if we care about all our kids, those gaps are a very important part of our world.

How large are the achievement gaps? The achievement gaps are large. Below, you see the average scores recorded by our three largest student groups in the most recent administration of the NAEP. For simplicity's sake, we'll show you Grade 8 only.

For all NAEP data, just click here. You'll have to proceed on your own:
Average scores, Grade 8 reading, 2015 NAEP
White students: 273.12
Black students: 247.17
Hispanic students: 252.53

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2015 NAEP
White students: 291.06
Black students: 259.85
Hispanic students: 269.47
For people who want all our kids to succeed, those gaps are distressingly large.

According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten or eleven points on the NAEP scale is often equated to one academic year. We regard that as a very rough rule of thumb, but it gives us the start of a rough idea concerning the size of those gaps.

Those gaps persist despite the gains which all three groups have shown. If we want all kids to succeed in school; if we want all kids to feel good about themselves in school, then those gaps define a yawning social problem, a problem which persists today, though at a higher achievement level than in the past.

Other types of achievement gaps are defined by the NAEP data. Below, you the see the gaps which obtain between lower-income and higher-income kids—between kids who qualify for the federal lunch program and kids who don't:
Average scores, Grade 8 reading, 2015 NAEP
Higher-income students: 276.36
Lower-income students: 252.55

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2015 NAEP
Higher-income students: 295.75
Lower-income students: 267.97
Those are large achievement gaps too. In the United States, as in other countries, academic performance tends to correlate with family income.

(Who qualifies for the federal lunch program? Roughly speaking, a student's family income must be less than twice the federal poverty line.)

We're going to show you a third set of gaps. These painful numbers display the size of the achievement gaps which obtain between higher- and lower-income kids of the three population groups:
Average scores, Grade 8 reading, 2015 NAEP
Higher-income white students: 279.06
Lower-income white students: 260.89

Higher-income black students: 259.07
Lower-income black students: 243.75

Higher-income Hispanic students: 264.58
Lower-income Hispanic students: 249.00

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2015 NAEP
Higher-income white students: 298.32
Lower-income white students: 275.94

Higher-income black students: 273.58
Lower-income black students: 255.82

Higher-income Hispanic students: 282.24
Lower-income Hispanic students: 265.86
Those numbers describe a painful reality, in which lower-income white students slightly exceed the average scores of higher-income black kids.

On their face, those are terrible gaps. You've never seen these numbers laid out in this degree of detail. That's because, if the truth be known, the national press corps shows little interest in the lives of the nation's black and Hispanic children.

(In fairness, indifference about this state of affairs isn't limited to the the mainstream press. Judging from appearances, liberal and progressive journalists would rather jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than spend their precious time on the daily school lives of black and Hispanic kids. You've never seen these topics discussed on MSNBC, the corporate pseudo-liberal channel. You've never seen its multimillionaire hosts stoop to consider these topics.)

The gains have been large, but the gaps are large too. If you read the New York Times, you'll encounter one part of this story. You'll read about the very large gaps. The "truly spectacular gains" will be disappeared.

Even at that, the gaps will sometimes be sensationalized, in familiar ways. In that recent New York Times report about the Bridgeport schools, readers were instantly handed an anecdotal claim about the way the city's (black and Hispanic) fifth graders "often read on kindergarten level."

As we noted in Part 1 of this week's report, the data from a serious study seemed to show that Bridgeport kids in grades 5-8 are, on average, working 1.7 grades below traditional grade level. That would suggest that the city's fifth graders are, on average, working on traditional third or fourth grade level.

The anecdote about "often reading on kindergarten level" gave readers an instant exciting jolt. It also came from a very old, highly disparaging playbook.

Black kids have shown "spectacular gains" on the NAEP over the past twenty years. They also stand on the minus side of some large achievement gaps.

Why do those large gaps exist? Various possible explanations exist, involving our brutal racial history and a range of current practices.

For today, we wanted to sketch the size of those gaps, gaps which persist in spite of the gains. In Part 4 of this week's report, we'll return to the international scene for detailed applications.

Next—part 4: The international achievement gaps, on both the TIMSS and the PISA


  1. Lost in the furor over fat-shaming is the fact that Machado was never paid the 10% owed her by contract for the commercials she made as Miss Universe. Trump's company got the money for the ads she made and didn't pay her according to their contractual obligations.

  2. Lest anyone be tempted to attribute the gap to race, African immigrant children do not show the same gap as African Americans in other studies of cognitive ability (NAEP doesn't break that down). You see this also with comparisons of performance of Asian immigrant children compared to Asian American children. This is a matter of culture and/or minority status, not race. Stereotype threat would account for part of the gap (see Claude Steele's work). Somerby's point is that this is not attributable to bad teaching in urban schools or you would see depressed scores for white children too and no improvement for black children.

  3. Thomas Sowell makes the case that liberal policies led to the decline among blacks. Note the bold-faced item:

    Even factoring for economic differences and severe social disadvantages, examples of a vibrant black family institution in America’s are too numerous to ignore.

    • In the 1890s, there were four public high schools in Washington D.C.; one black, the M Street School/Dunbar High School, and three white. In 1899, Dunbar averaged higher standardized test scores than students in two of the three white schools. From 1870 to 1955 Dunbar repeatedly equaled or exceeding performance on national standardized tests.

    • As late as 1910 more than two-thirds of the black population of Chicago lived in neighborhoods where most residents were white.

    • In 1950, 72 percent of all black men and 81 percent of black women had been married.

    • Every census from 1890 to 1950 showed that black labor force participation rates were higher than those of whites.

    • Prior to the 1960’s the unemployment rate for black 16 and 17-year olds was under 10 percent.

    • Before 1960, the number of teenage pregnancies had been decreasing; both poverty and dependency were declining, and black income was rising in both absolute and relative terms to white income.

    • In 1965, 76.4 percent of black children were born to married women.

    So what changed the equation?

    By the 1960s, American society was riddled with generations of “white guilt.” In reaction and repentance sparked by Dr. King’s nonviolent civil disobedience and the systemic introspection of social norms by whites, Americans overcompensated with sweeping entitlement programs under President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and by turning a blind eye to accountability on longstanding values and principled behavior within the African American community.

    Read more: http://www.americanthinker.com/2014/03/the_decline_of_the_africanamerican_family.html#ixzz4Lg9H4ufK

    1. Sowell is missing part of the picture. Consider the public school in 1899. The actual fact is that in 1899, most kids did NOT goto high school. I have spent a fair amount of time in the 1940 census. It lists the highest grade completed.

      My white grandparents, born from 1889 to 1898 had - 8th grade, college degree, 7th grade, and 8th grade for educations. My dad's mom was the exception, being a college graduate. Her mother had a 6th grade education and her father a 4th grade education.

      That black high school in 1899 was educating the elites, and not the entire population.

      Of course, "education" did not stop when kids quit going to school. Instead, they got practical education from their parents. They learned how to farm, sew, preserve food, build, etc.

    2. He wouldn't be Thomas Sowell if he wasn't missing at least part of the picture, which is essential to support his bias. The troll wouldn't be a troll without bringing Sowell into a non-conservative comment box to continuously support his "black culture is to blame" polemic.

    3. The troll claims to be an actuary. I call bullshit on even that. Anyone who understands the least bit about statistics wouldn't use proof by example so often. A real statistician knows what an outlier is, and is careful to not use a datum to describe data.

  4. I keep reading Somerby saying "these are terrible gaps" and I wonder "what is so terrible about them?"

    I tend to me more concerned about minimums. As long as everybody meets a basic level of literacy who really cares if some people read at the 8th grade level and some people read at graduate school level? Same with math, except that math does not seem nearly as useful to me as reading.

    Of course there is the whole good job/excrement job divide. All kids are supposed to run as fast as they can so they can get a seat on the good job train, because those who do not are condemned to a life of endless toil at crap wages.

    I guess it is a terrible thing if 30% of black people are in this hole and only 10% of white people. It should be 15% of each group.

    We keep raising the bar too. For the average black kid in 2007 to get the same score as the average white kid in 1990 is not good enough. It was good enough in 1990, but know you have to run twice as fast just to stay in the same place.

    Of course the whole world is in a rat race because the losing country is condemned to doing excrement work for excrement wages. What a world.

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