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THE BLACK-WHITE ACHIEVEMENT GAP: New Report Questions Why Progress Has Stalled in Closing the Achievement Gap

“Approaches to restart progress will require addressing this problem on multiple levels.”

A new report from Educational Testing Service (ETS) takes a historical look at efforts to narrow the educational attainment and achievement gaps between black and white students and finds that after years of developments, the progress has stalled. The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped questions why the last two decades have resulted in a standstill when so much national attention has been focused on the problem.

By analyzing student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the report finds that most of the progress in closing the achievement gap in math and reading occurred in the 1970s and 80s. For some age groups, the achievement gaps between white and black students were cut by as much as half or more. For example, in NAEP reading scores, a fifty-three-point achievement gap existed between white and black seventeen-year-olds in 1971, but by 1988 that gap had been reduced to twenty points.

A number of research efforts have been undertaken to understand this period of large gap reductions. These efforts provide several explanations such as family and demographic changes; federal investments in Head Start, Title I, and Child Nutrition Programs; increases in the proportion of students taking more rigorous courses; desegregation; reduction in class sizes; and the widespread use of minimum competency testing, which is aimed at determining whether students have acquired “basic skills,” and then pushes schools to improve these skills. However, according to the study, no cause has been established that is conclusive. The authors express confidence in research that finds up to one third of the narrowing of the gap could be explained by a set of factors including parent education and income, characteristics of the parent(s), and race or ethnicity.

The Black-White Achievement Gap finds that after the achievement gap narrowed during the 1970s and 80s, it remained generally stable for about a decade in both reading in math. Then from 1999 through 2004, the gap started to narrow again but not for long, and between 2004 and 2008 there were no statistically significant changes in the gap. Currently, comprehensive research does not exist to explain these periods of small and irregular changes or no changes in the gap.

To understand the changes that have occurred in the achievement gap over the last forty years, the report authors take a more expansive view and look to other forms of data beyond test scores. One body of research finds that there was a decline in the attainment gap in each decade from 1940 to 1990 on both a high school and college graduation level. However, the report indicates that the progress stalled for those born after 1965 which, the authors note, is ironic given the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The report states that a number of developments could play a part in blocking continued progress, such as inadequate early childhood care, the increase of single-parent families, black males’ struggles to find steady employment and earnings, and stalled mobility out of seriously disadvantaged communities.

“Approaches to restart progress will require addressing this problem on multiple levels,” said Richard J. Coley, director of the ETS Policy Information Center and coauthor of the report. “Entire neighborhoods may have to be uplifted in terms of their economic capital, school quality, safety, and health structures.”

Although the authors do not offer any final recommendations or answers to why progress in narrowing the achievement gap has halted, they challenge the research and policy communities to learn more on this issue. To read the complete report, visit


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