School policies and the test score gap
On average, black students in the United States achieve at lower levels than white students do. Recent evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicates, for example, that in 2004 the gap between thirteen-year-old black and white students was about 0.6 standard deviation in reading and about 0.8 in math. To be sure, such gaps were far larger in the 1970s, when they exceeded a full standard deviation in both subjects. The gaps fell dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s, increased during the early 1990s, and then fell again between 1999 and 2004. These ups and downs notwithstanding, the persistence of these gaps is cause for significant policy concern for reasons discussed elsewhere in this book and in Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (1998). This volume has drawn attention to school-related trends such as in the racial segregation of the schools and the widening disparities in teacher qualifications between black and white students, especially at the elementary level, that may have stalled the convergence of the black and white test scores in the 1990s (see Vigdor and Ludwig, chapter 5, and Corcoran and Evans, chapter 6, this volume). This chapter picks up from that analysis and asks what educational policies might be pursued moving forward to help reduce the black-white test score gap, or at least to offset some of the other trends that may tend to widen it, such as rising income and social inequality. Of particular interest for this review are school policies and strategies that have been proposed or justified-at least in part-on the basis of their potential for reducing black-white test score gaps. As will become apparent, not all the proposed strategies are likely to be effective in that regard and their net effect on the size of the gap is likely to be relatively small. This discussion is divided into five sets of policy strategies. The first two focus on teachers, but from quite different perspectives. One set relates to the assignment of students to schools, with attention to how racial segregation of students affects the quality of teachers for black students relative to white students. The other focuses on more direct interventions designed to improve the quality of the teachers of black students. The third set includes the nonteacher strategies of reducing class size and implementing whole school reform. The fourth and fifth sets emerge from a more systemic view of the educational challenge and are designed to change the incentives throughout the education system. Included here are both top-down accountability strategies designed to hold schools accountable for the performance of their students and bottom up strategies such as increased parental choice and competition designed either to improve schooling options for certain groups of students or to make use of market type pressures to improve educational outcomes. The main thrust of this chapter is that though none of the strategies discussed here is likely to be powerful enough to offset the powerful nonschool social forces that contribute to the racial achievement gap, school related strategies are a necessary component of any overall effort to reduce such gaps. Moreover, the failure of education policy makers to be vigilant about the aspects of the problem over which they do have some control could well lead to even greater gaps in the future or to lost opportunities to reduce them. Copyright © 2008 by Russell Sage Foundation.
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