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the test score gap
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Over the years, reseachers have documented persistent gaps in the performance of different groups on the SAT and other standardized tests. For example, the College Board reported that the average score for women bound for college this Fall is 43 points below the average score for men. The average score for Asian Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders on the SAT I math was 32 points higher than that for whites. But the greatest disparities have been documented between African Americans and whites.

Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, editors of the 1998 book The Black-White Test Score Gap, point out in their introduction that African Americans score lower than whites on vocabulary, reading and math tests, as well as on tests such as the SAT. This gap appears before kindergarten and persists into adulthood. The average black student scores below 70 to 80 percent of the white students of the same age, Jencks told FRONTLINE Similar issues arise when Mexican American and Latino students, as well as Native American students, are compared to white students, although this phenomenon has not been studied as widely, Jencks and Phillips say.

Among seniors who are entering college in the Fall of 1999, African Americans' average scores on the SAT I Verbal were 93 points below white students' average scores. Blacks scored, on average, 106 points less than whites on the SAT I Math.

The gap in SAT scores persists even at the highest levels of achievement. A study of the 1989 applicants to five highly-selective universities found that white candidates' average combined SAT score was 186 points higher than the corresponding SAT average for African American applicants. Close to 75 percent of the white applicants scored over 1200 on the SAT, while 29 percent of black applicants did. The results of this study were reported in the 1998 book The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, by Derek Bok and William Bowen, former presidents of Harvard and Princeton universities.

The gap cannot be easily explained. Contrary to what might be expected, Meredith Phillips and her colleagues suggest in The Black-White Test Score Gap that parents' income differences by themselves have almost no effect on children's test scores. Rather, they urge us to look further back in a child's family tree.

Whether or not a parent follows the middle-class parenting practices that are most likely to increase a child's chances of doing well in school--having books at home, reading to the child, taking her on a trip to the museum, for example--depends on how the parent was raised. Even when black and white parents have the same test scores, educational attainment, income, wealth and number of children, black parents are more likely to have grown up in less-advantaged households. So part of the explanation for the gap may lay in the widespread discrimination in housing, education and employment that African American children's grandparents faced.

In 1994, Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein and economist Charles Murray asserted in their book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life that differences in cognitive ability between racial groups as measured by standardized tests are due in part to genetics. Jencks and Phillips, however, point out in The Black-White Test Score Gap that "despite endless speculation, no one has found genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less innate intellectual ability than whites."

Recent studies have shown that later in life, when those students who make it to college and post-graduate studies are faced with standardized tests such as the SAT and the GRE, new factors come into play which might contribute to the gap. Stanford psychology professor Claude Steele and his colleagues have described what they call "stereotype threat." According to their research, a student who feels he is part of a group that has been negatively stereotyped is likely to perform less well in a situation in which he thinks that people might evaluate him through that stereotype than in a situation in which he feels no such pressure.

Steele has conducted experiments in which he brings in black students and white students to take a standardized test. The first time, he tells the students that they will be taking a test to measure their verbal and reasoning ability. The second time, he tells them the test is an unimportant research tool. Steele has found that the black students do less well when they are told that the test measures their abilities. He also believes that the effects of stereotype threat are strongest for students who are high-achievers and care very much about doing well. They care so much about doing well, Steele says, that they feel that if they don't they will be confirming the negative stereotypes associated with black students. (Read FRONTLINE's interview with Claude Steele and, Steele's article in The Atlantic.)

In another experiment, Steele brought in white and Asian men who were strong in math. He told them the math test they were about to take was one in which Asians do slightly better than whites. The white men performed less well when they were told this, than when they were not. Another experiment showed that stereotype threat also brought down the performance of strong female math students.

Even though it has persisted, the black-white test score gap narrowed between 1976 and the late 1980s. Then it began to widen again.

The decline has proven that the gap can be closed. "You can argue about why it happened, there's a lot of room for that," Jencks told FRONTLINE, "but something good took place that was both a surprise and a reason to believe that, if we worked at it, maybe we could make more good things take place."

In The Black-White Test Score Gap, David Grissmer and his colleagues attribute the narrowing gap (they focus their attention not on SAT scores, but rather on reading and math tests given to 9-,13- and 17-year-olds) to anti-poverty efforts, school desegregation, class-size reduction and more demanding coursework implemented in the 1960s and early 1970s. The researchers suggest that teenage violence among blacks might have contributed to the widening of the gap starting at the end of the 1980s, but they warn that this is insufficient to explain all of it.

Researchers like Jencks stress the importance of closing the gap. Blacks who acquire the skills measured by these tests do better economically, he told FRONTLINE. He also argues that closing the black-white test score gap would affect more meaningful change than affirmative action policies in college admissions which are currently being challenged on constitutional grounds. "You wouldn't need to have racial preferences for admissions to elite colleges," Jencks said, "if you actually had candidates with comparable test scores."

For additional discussion about the test score gap, read FRONTLINE's interview with Abigail Thernstrom.

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