Examining the Achievement Gap Between White and Black Students in Alabama

Trisha Powell Crain, AL.com, July 5, 2017

Alabama State Capitol

The Alabama State Capitol. (Credit Image: DXR / Wikimedia)

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While test scores in Alabama schools generally mirror poverty levels, poverty is only one factor, research has shown.

The Alabama state department of education’s chief academic officer Dr. Barbara Cooper is charged with improving achievement for the 730,000 students in Alabama’s public schools.

“Even in places where students are affluent, there is still a black-white achievement gap,” she said. “So poverty is not the answer there.

“These students are still performing significantly below [their white peers], and their parents are making six figures.”

Even though black students in affluent areas perform better than black students in impoverished areas, there is still a gap, Cooper said.

The achievement gap, as we refer to it here, is the difference in proficiency levels of black students and white students. Statewide, that gap is large, between 20 and 30 percentage points in any given subject area.

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Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Monitoring Project has dug deeply into available data, searching for what other factors beyond poverty might be influencing the black-white achievement gap.

Researcher Sean Reardon studied the multiple factors that contribute to the gap, using more than 200 million test scores from schools and districts across the country.

Reardon and his fellow researchers wanted to see which factors are most closely correlated with the achievement gap. They looked at two sets of factors that account for about three-fourths of the gap.

The first set has to do with a student’s family resources, residential segregation and neighborhood factors.

The second set has to do with education policies and practices, including school segregation, disparities between schools and also within schools.

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Though Reardon’s research, the first to look at gaps nationwide, was not able to identify causal relationships, as in what actually causes the achievement gap. Instead, they found correlations, as in here are some factors that exist when we find achievement gaps.

They found clear links to parental income, but also parental education levels and school segregation.

Reardon told AL.com, “Achievement gaps are shaped by many factors, as we describe in the paper. Socioeconomic differences between white and black children play a role – since higher income students come from homes with more economic resources, live in better neighborhoods, and often have access to higher quality child care and preschool experiences.”

“But,” Reardon said, “segregation also plays a large role – in highly segregated school systems, where black children attend higher poverty schools than white children – achievement gaps are larger.”

That concentration of poverty exacerbates the gap, Reardon said, “because high-poverty schools often have few resources, have a harder time attracting and retaining the most skilled teachers, and have a higher proportion of high-need children. All of these mean that children in high-poverty schools often have less access to rigorous and challenging curriculum.”

The authors also identified the 20 school districts in the country with the largest black-white achievement gap from tests taken in 2009 through 2013.

Out of 12,200 school districts nationwide, three of Alabama’s school districts, Vestavia Hills City, Homewood City, and Tuscaloosa City, landed in the top 20.

In another paper, “School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps,” Reardon acknowledged the role of segregation and urges better integrated classrooms and schools. He writes, “In sum, racial integration policies remain essential for reducing racial disparities in school poverty rates.”

In a state like Alabama, that resisted integrating its public schools until the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that so heavily relies on local tax collections to minimally fund its schools, that is a loaded question.

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Alabama’s black-white gap has been around as long as test data has been broken down and reported.

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AL.com looked at the most recent ACT Aspire results available, from the 2015-2016 school year, and calculated gaps at the district level. Consistent with Reardon’s findings, the same districts showed large black-white gaps.

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After calculating black-white gaps in all of Alabama’s districts where scores for black and white students were reported, meaning both black and white students are enrolled in a district, AL.com found that gap can be as much as 60 to 65 percentage points.

The analysis of last year’s test scores found the same districts Reardon’s team found, Vestavia Hills, Tuscaloosa City, and Homewood City, to be among those with the largest gaps in the most grades and subject areas.

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