A Tale of Two Disparity Gaps

Gerard Robinson, Brookings, June 30, 2016

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Chief among our disparity narratives is the white-nonwhite achievement gap, which is code for white-black-and-Hispanic (Native Americans typically are ignored in these comparisons, unfortunately). Scholars and reformers are very familiar with National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) data that prove this historical gap exists.

NAEP National Average Math Score on 8th Grade Math

White Black W/B Gap Hispanic W/H Gap
2015 292 260 -32 270 -22
2005 289 255 -34 262 -27
1992 277 237 -40 249 -28

NAEP National Average Reading Score on 8th Grade Math

White Black W/B Gap Hispanic W/H Gap
2015 274 248 -26 253 -21
2005 271 243 -28 246 -25
1992 267 237 -30 241 -26

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Yet our fascination with white-black-and-Hispanic disparities too often overlooks a salient and, more importantly, nuanced achievement gap existing at the top of the learning chain: a white-nonwhite achievement gap that is impolite code for white-and-everyone-else-except-Asian. A select number of scholars and reformers know about the empirical evidence; most of us do not. Typically, the national standard for explaining academic disparities to the American public rarely includes Asian students in the narrative. Why? White student achievement historically has served as the pinnacle of excellence and the measure by which we judge other people’s children. Therefore, we reflexively overlook the superior performance of some Asians over whites.

However, a few points from NAEP illustrate that the Asian-white gap is real and not new.

NAEP National Average Math Score on 8th Grade Math

Asian White Gap
2015 306 292 -14
2005 295 289 -6
1992 290 277 -13

NAEP National Average Reading Score on 8th Grade Math

Asian White Gap
2015 280 274 -6
2005 271 271 0
1992 268 267 -1

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Academic inquiries in the Asian-white achievement gap abound. Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou identify educated immigrant parents as one factor giving their children an advantage over U.S.-born whites. Amy Hsin and Yu Xie concluded that the “Asian-American educational advantage” results from a culture of academic effort, not cognitive or socioeconomic advantages. Nathan Joo, Richard Reeves, and Edward Rodrigue believe Asians do better, in part, because they live in areas with better schools, nearly on par with whites. Nevertheless, the authors note that not all Asians are performing better than whites.

For example, 79 percent of Koreans and 76 percent of Japanese eighth graders scored proficient on the California Algebra I test compared to 39 percent of whites and 35 percent of Laotians and Cambodians in 2010.  {snip}

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Our national reform conversations to address the achievement gap rarely target Asian or white students. One reason is because our philanthropic appetite to address systemic disparities caused by poverty, homogeneous neighborhoods, or school segregation rarely targets Asians students. Another is a left-of-center social justice–or a social just us (black and Hispanic)–narrative that does not address the needs of poor and working-class white students who are struggling in schools, too. Either way, we need to expand the disparity narrative to include all students if we want to undertake an effective effort to address the achievement gap in the United States.

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We can begin this journey by accepting two themes as valid. Poverty is not a proxy for destiny. Nor is ethnicity a predicate for scholastic superiority. Next, if we must use public schools as a petri dish for social engineering, then an investigation of Asian-white or intraracial disparities will shed new light on solutions for white-black-Hispanics or interracial disparities have failed to accomplish, and not always from lack of good intent or policies. In particular, we can obtain a unique glimpse into class, language, and culture dynamics we gloss over by a race-only view. By doing so we can begin to wash away some stains from our laundry list of liabilities in the United States.

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