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STUDYING THE PAST TO IMPACT TODAY: RAND Examines Narrowing of the Achievement Gap from 1972 to 1992, Makes Recommendations for Today

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"educational policies and reforms that require students to take college preparatory courses like mathematics are likely to further narrow the achievement gap, or at least keep it from widening"

Improved socioeconomic conditions such as parents’ occupational status, educational attainment, and income all corresponded to a narrowing of the black-white and Latino-white achievement gaps in reading and math scores from 1972 to 1992, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation. The report, Examining the Gaps in Mathematics Achievement Among Racial-Ethnic Groups, 1972-1992, also found a very positive change in test scores as a result of increased enrollments of black and Latino students in more rigorous courses.

Using data from the three national longitudinal studies and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the RAND report examined nationally representative high school seniors between the early 1970s and the early 1990s to understand trends in the mathematics scores of different racial-ethnic groups. It found that while achievement gaps remained wide during this period, black and Latino students made significant progress in closing the test score gap in both reading and math: the black-white gap was reduced by 20 percent, and the Latino-white gap was reduced by 32 percent.

According to the report, some of the most significant improvements in minority test scores were due to increased enrollments of black and Latino students in the “academic track.” While the number of white students on an academic track stayed consistent at about 50 percent from 1972 to 1992, enrollments of black students increased by 13 percent and Latino students by 37 percent. These increased numbers translated to nearly 60 percent narrowing of the black-white mathematics gap between 1972 and 1992 and a 34 percent decrease in the Latino-white gap.

The report did note one negative factor during the period that worked against the narrowing of the achievement gap. When it examined schools that black and Latinos students attended, the report found schools that were racially isolated and composed of predominantly minority students, a factor which, it noted, has been shown to negatively affect student achievement. In fact, the report found that increases in the minority composition of high schools that black and Latino students attended corresponded to a widening of the test score gap with white students.

Based on its findings from this twenty-year period, the report made several policy recommendations to help close the achievement gap that exists today. For schools, the report called for educational policies and reforms that address secondary school tracking and the increasing isolation of minority students in predominately minority schools. It also noted that “educational policies and reforms that require students to take college preparatory courses like mathematics are likely to further narrow the achievement gap, or at least keep it from widening.” After seeing the achievement gap narrow as parents’ socioeconomic conditions improved, the report also called for greater support for the advancement of parents’ educational attainment, occupational attainment, and wages, and more federal and state support for parent involvement in a child’s schooling.

The report also stressed the importance of understanding that family and welfare policies need to be coordinated with educational policies. “Without thinking about how educational policies complement or conflict with policies related to spheres such as welfare, work, and housing, the goal of narrowing achievement gaps will continue to face significant obstacles,” it read.

The complete report is available at http://www.rand.org/publications/MG/MG255/.

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