Christina A. Samuels, Education Week, January 7, 2020
I took the college admissions test twice as a high school student in the late 1980s, prepped only with the practice tests that my school offered.
My final scores landed me in the 99th percentile of college-bound high school seniors nationally at the time; my math score was in the 75th percentile. “Good enough,” I thought, and proceeded to forget about them for years.
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.) 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 was defensive and annoyed when I analyzed the results of this survey.
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. Yes, it mattered that they were able to show me, through their lives, the rewards that can come from a good education.
And that leads me to an element that overlies all of this: wealth.
Poor students of all races perform worse on tests than more-affluent students. It’s true of the SATs and every other standardized test. And black students (along with Hispanic and American Indian and Alaska Native students) are more likely than their white and Asian counterparts to be poor.
That disparity may not be the fault of individual teachers—but it’s someone’s fault.
So why are achievement gaps so persistent? I’m left with the realization that none of us are off the hook. Not parents, teachers, schools, or policymakers.