But it’s not hard to imagine direct effects of income on student achievement. Parents who are struggling economically simply don’t have the time or the wherewithal to check homework, drive children to summer camp, organize museum trips, or help their kids plan for college. Working multiple jobs or inconvenient shifts makes it hard to dedicate time for family dinners, enforce a consistent bedtime, read to infants and toddlers, or invest in music lessons or sports clubs. Even small differences in access to the activities and experiences that are known to promote brain development can accumulate, resulting in a sizable gap between two groups of children defined by family circumstances.
Traditional public schools assign a child to a given school based exclusively on his family’s place of residence. As Coleman pointed out, residential assignment promotes stratification between schools by family background, because it creates incentives for families of means to move to the “good” school districts. Under this system, schools cannot serve as the equal-opportunity engines of our society. Instead, residential assignment often replicates within the school system the same family advantages and disadvantages that exist in the community.
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Here we present our findings and explore possible reasons why they diverge from those of previous studies. We also consider various explanations for the expanding gap between black and white students as they move through school.
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What are the causes of this persistent gap in achievement? In study after study, scholars have investigated the effects of differences among white and black students in their socioeconomic status, family structure, and neighborhood characteristics and in the quality of their schools. To be sure, socioeconomic status and the trappings of poverty are important factors in explaining racial differences in educational achievement. Yet a substantial gap remains even after these crucial influences are accounted for.
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Gaining a better understanding of what causes the test-score gap is of great importance because eliminating the gap could yield great advances in the well-being of African-Americans. In separate studies, Derek Neal and William Johnson in 1996 and June O’Neill in 1990 found that most of the wage gap between black and white adults disappears once the data are adjusted to reflect their scores on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test; in other words, those adults with similar scores earned similar wages. Thus closing the test-score gaps that emerge in high school may be a critical prerequisite to reducing wage inequality between the races. As scholars Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips write, “Reducing the black-white test score gap would do more to promote racial equality than any other strategy that commands broad political support.”
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To take a fresh look at the gap and its sources, we examined a new data set, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort, compiled by the U.S. Department of Education. The results are quite surprising: after adjusting the data for the effects of only a few observable characteristics, the black-white test-score gap in math and reading for students entering kindergarten essentially disappeared. Put simply, white and black children with similar personal and family background characteristics achieved similar test scores (see Figure 1).
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However, our results show that the achievement gap, while negligible among black and non-Hispanic white children with similar characteristics when they enter kindergarten, expands as they grow older. From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of first grade, black students lose 20 percent of a standard deviation (approximately 10 percent of a standard deviation each year) relative to white students with similar characteristics. If the gap were to continue to grow at this rate, by 5th grade the average black student would be half a standard deviation behind his white counterpart–a residual gap similar in magnitude to that found in previous analyses. Hispanic children do not experience this widening test-score gap relative to otherwise similar white students; indeed, they systematically close the gap, perhaps because their initial scores are artificially low due to the relative inexperience with the English language among some immigrants and their children (see Figure 2).