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Christopher Jencks: He is a professor of social policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He co-edited with Meredith Phillips The Black-White Test Score Gap in 1998, a compilation of the most recent research on the gaps between the performance of blacks and whites on standardized tests.
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Blacks start school with weaker skills and the ones who start with equal skills proceed to learn less. What did you think about it when you compiled all this data and presented it?

I actually felt much more optimistic after working on all this than I felt before I started. This has always been viewed as an intractable problem by people since the late 60's and in the early 60's we thought we knew the answers and it became pretty clear that the answers we thought we knew were not anywhere near sufficient and then I think people kind of got very pessimistic. And they have stayed pessimistic.

When I started working at this, I was pessimistic too. And after looking at it for a couple of years, I actually became much more encouraged about what was possible and also about what we accomplished.

Why more optimist?

Well, the biggest thing is that there was this enormous closing of the black/white test score gap during the 1980's. I mean just for a ten year period we made more progress than I think you have in any comparable period of history on almost any test of anything. And there was just this phenomenal improvement in the national assessment of educational progress and reading and somewhat less but still quite marked improvements in math.

It's not the case that what an intelligence test measures is your genes or your heredity or something It's partly that and partly lots of other things to do with your family background, schooling, your experiences and so forth. And given all the pessimism that had been out there, nobody had predicted this, but it happened. Well that sort of says, you know, something can be done. That can't be attributed to biology, it can't be attributed to some intractable cultural problem. You can argue about why it happened, there's lots of room for that, but something good took place that was both a surprise and I think reason to think, you know, if we worked at it, maybe we could make more good things take place.

Claude Steele said,"Look, Blacks not only know about this (the black/white test score gap),they have been hounded by it." Why is this gap so important to society?

The test score gap is important for two big reasons. One is that it's really got real economic consequences. Makes a big difference economically. How people do on basic skills, I mean it isn't so important how they do on a test, but it's important that they have the skills the test measure. And it does seem pretty clear that blacks who acquire these skills do, not quite as well as whites economically, but very close. So that's a big factor.

But the other thing is exactly what Claude Steele is talking about, namely, Blacks have been hounded by this gap for ages and ages and ages. And if you could eliminate it, I think it would change the stereotypes that affect the whole society and in a really important way. And it would also eliminate the need for a whole series of programs that nobody feels very good about. I mean you wouldn't need to have racial preferences for admissions to elite colleges if you actually had applicants who had comparable test scores. Well, that would solve a big political problem and a big social problem and a big psychological problem all at once. How to do it is a tough question.

How big is the gap, when does it start? How long does it last?

Well, the easiest way to describe the gap is probably to say, if you take a typical Black student, what percentage of Whites does he score above and below? And the typical Black student is probably scoring below something between 70 and 80 percent of the White students of the same age. So that's quite a disparity. Obviously if they were the same typical Black student would be below 50% of the White students and if it's 70 or 80, that's a big difference.

That is typically true when kids enter kindergarten and it's still typically more or less true when they graduate from high school, so the pattern is kind of fairly consistent at the cross ages. Not exactly, but close enough. Now that doesn't mean that nothing has happened in between obviously, because the difference between kids who are in kindergarten are pretty small in the absolute sense. So there's a huge amount of learning that takes place and in any absolute sense, those gaps have widened a lot.

Now, did you find that people have preconceptions or conceptions about what makes the gap happen?

Back in the 60's I think the traditional liberal ideas were, first, school segregation was a big explanation and we all knew or certainly thought we knew that segregated schools put Blacks at a big disadvantage and thought that if we desegregated the schools that would play substantially well with closing the gap. Now it does seem to me, from the evidence, that it plays some role in closing the gap but it's much, much smaller than we expected 30 years ago

And the other thing that we thought 30 years ago, pretty clearly, was we thought that the resources going to schools that Black kids attended were much less adequate. The teachers were less well-trained and the classes were bigger and all this kind of thing. And although I think that too plays some role, it's hard to argue it plays a big role these days because the resources--although they're not by any means completely equal--they're pretty equal. The big difference that you see is in the actual skills of the teachers who are teaching Black and White children. Most of the other measures like class size and so forth you don't see very big differences at all.

Unfortunately the things that are unequal like the skills of the teachers turned out to be more important than most of the other things. So that's a very worrisome and troubling situation.

What would you say if somebody asks, 'Is the score gap genetic?'

I'd say the evidence as we have it now is pretty overwhelming that most of it is not. k You can't rule out that there could ever be any tiny little genetic component to differences between any group of people, but the evidence here is pretty strong, I think, that most, if not all of the gap is environmental in origin.

There's also a conservative bias that explains it through the culture of poverty. Can you talk about that?

Well there's been a story about the test score gap being related to the culture of poverty and Black culture and so forth; it's been around for at least a generation and probably much longer than that. And I think the story is a story about something you can't see. It's a little like the story about genes. You know, people have genes, you can't actually observe them but they might explain something.

But this too, is a story about something about Black culture, depresses Black kids test performance. And of course, at some level, when you see that the Black kids are not doing well when they're coming into school, you've got to say well, 'there must be some reason for this, and if it isn't biological, then it's got to be something about their environments and their upbringing and the way their parents treat them and so forth.' And that's been a kind of a standard conservative explanation.

I think that the politics of this are not really so much about whether it's culture, but about whether there's anything you can do about it. And for some people, when you say it's cultural, that means it's just there. There's nothing else to be said. There's nothing else to be done. For other people you say, 'well this is a cultural difference, but it's something that we can intervene and change, and there's no reason to accept these differences as if they were written in stone, just because you put the label cultural on them.'

What can be done? Put the effort on K through 12? Or maybe we should be looking at how much parents read to a child versus how much money they make?

I think actually both the home and the school are really important. I don't think the schools alone can do this. But actually I don't think the homes alone can do it either. All big social problems have lots of causes, otherwise they wouldn't be big problems. And this is a perfect example.

It's a big problem because a whole lot of different things are all working in the same direction. And you have to kind of deal with all of them if you want to come to grips with the problem. You know, if you had to make an arbitrary guess, I'd say well, maybe the schools could do half of it and half of it would have to be the home. But this is kind of pulling numbers out of the air. I mean it might be one-third and two-thirds, or two-thirds and one-third. We don't really know the answer to that.

But surely a big piece of this problem is the home and the big piece of the problem is the schools. The reason for emphasizing the home is partly because the most important thing you have to change is what teachers expect of kids--and if the kids come in already at a disadvantage, then changing the teacher's expectations to make them expect more of kids who aren't doing well when they arrive in school is incredibly difficult. It's easy to change expectations when your expectations are just a fantasy based on nothing in particular. But if your expectations are low because the kids are arriving in school without the skills that you're used to, then it's very hard to change teachers around and say to them, 'well you may not see it now, but these kids could really do a lot better.'

Your co-editor presented findings which seemed to show that maybe even two-thirds, if not all, of the gap, can be explained by environmental differences if you change how you're defining socio-economic conditions. Can you talk about what she was trying to get across there and what you, or she, found?

The question of what the environment can explain is always complicated because different people mean different things by the environment. So let me start with the narrowest definition, which is just sort of economic and educational differences between parents. And if you just compare Black and White kids whose parents have the same amount of income and the same education, and the same family structure, and that kind of thing, the gap drops by maybe a quarter to a third and that's consistent with what The Bell Curve says. And that's a very consistent finding across many different studies by people on all sides of the political spectrum.

So then the question is, well what do you make of the rest? Well, a big chunk of the rest seems to be statistically explained by differences in things like child-rearing practices or what kind of families the parents themselves grew up in, which is probably related to child-rearing practices and what kinds of schools they attended and so forth, which aren't just parental education and income, but are part of a broader way of thinking about the environment that involves subtler things, like how often do you read to your kids, or, do you have grandparents who were better educated, or that sort of thing.

So if you expand the environmental definition to include all that stuff, you can explain more. Well then you can say, well what happens to Black kids who are actually adopted by White parents? Now presumably, those kids are in environments that are even more like White kids environments, but of course we don't really know because the White parents who adopt Black kids are not random parents--they're atypical parents. We do have a study that compares Black kids adopted by middle class Black parents and Black kids adopted by middle class White parents and the Black kids do better on these tests when they're adopted by the White parents. But it's a small study.

But all of this suggests, at least to me, that the subtler the way you think about the environment gets, the more it can explain. Of course to the people on the other side, you can read it in a very different way and say, 'oh well, all those environmental differences that you're looking at are really just proxies for these genetic differences that we believe explain all this.

In what way are standardized tests biased?

I think the biggest problem was a lot of these tests is what we call them, not what they actually measure. When you call a test an intelligence test, people think they're measuring something that's inborn, genetic, biological, fixed in time, unchangeable, and we know that what intelligence tests actually measure isn't entirely any of those things.

It is partly determined by genes and it gets relatively stable as people get older and so forth, but it's not the case that what an intelligence test measures is your genes or your heredity or something... It's partly that and partly lots of other things to do with your family background and your schooling and your experiences and so forth.

If we change the names of the tests, they still measure the same thing but it wouldn't convey this idea that somehow you've gotten the potential of somebody when you measured their IQ. And I think that creates a big bias, because the people who do badly on the tests are labeled as people with low potential in many people's minds and they sometimes even believe that about themselves.

Psychologists don't believe that, but they stick to the label, nonetheless. I mean no psychologist would tell you that these tests measure genetic potential, pure and simple. But they will tell you that they were measuring intelligence, and then they'll tell you that that's a perfectly good thing to say that it measures, because that's what they've said it measures for 100 years. And they just don't worry much about what other people think that word means.

Isn't one of the criticisms of the SAT is that nobody's quite sure of what it does measure? Is it because ETS can't say, or don't want to say, what it measures?

I think it's hard to say exactly what it measures. And I'm very sympathetic. It's especially hard to say what the SAT measures if you want to keep the acronym SAT, which is most successful marketing tool in testing history. Well IQ is right up there too, but SAT is what everybody knows you have to take to go to college and it's the test that's marketed by ETS. So if they change the name in any way that does reproduce SAT, they're in real trouble. So I think they've got a constraint there.

But in fact, if it had been called, say the Scholastic Achievement Test, I think it would've taken the political curse off the thing. It isn't exactly an achievement test, it's certainly not exactly an aptitude test. But if you recognize in the label that this involves achievement, then people will say, okay, well it may not be the kind of achievement we should test, but it's reasonable that you should give a test if it measures achievement.

Whenever Henry Chauncey, who was working with James Conant, ever got close to the word "achievement," Conant would say that's not what I want, because achievement was then the privilege of the guys who went at that time to Exeter and Andover.

I think when these tests were originally developed, people really believed if they did the job right, they would be able measure this sort of underlying, biological potential. And they often called it aptitude. Sometimes they called it genes. Sometimes they called it intelligence. But whatever they called it, they though that there was something there and if they just tweaked and fiddled and worked at it a little harder, they would get pretty close to being able to measure it.

I don't think people believe that anymore. They believe that how you do on almost any test is substantially affected by both your heredity and your environment and both things make a difference. Any psychologist would tell you that. But, the problem of finding a label for something which is both A and B, is a tough one and you could say it's the Scholastic Aptitude and Achievement Test for instance, but that doesn't sound good when you're selling it. Especially to someone like Conant who wanted a test that measured aptitude.

What's the only way to eliminate labeling bias in tests?

I think you've got to re-label these tests. You need to call these tests things that really reflect what it is that they measure. And then it's also a question of what kinds of things the tests should really measure. But that's a different question.

Do the SAT's do a good job of predicting academic performance?

I think they really don't do a good job of predicting. They do a pretty poor job of predicting, but they're the best we've got. Well that means the people who are good at those things, high school grades and test taking, are going to do well in getting into good colleges. And other people who would do equally well in college are just not going to make it because we have no way of picking out the kid who will do well, even though his high grades weren't so great and even though his SAT scores weren't so great.

There are lots of kids out there like that and on the average they won't do as well as the other ones and the ones who will, are going to lose out because we can't identify. They come with little tags. If we knew what else it was--if we could say, 'well, it's stick-to-itiveness or, it's getting excited by a teacher or something,'--then we could measure it. That would help a lot. And it would probably help minority kids in particular because they don't do well on these tests and they are put at a disadvantage by that, and that's even more of an issue on the job where we know that tests are not terribly strong predictors of job performance and we know that lots of other stuff counts, But we don't know how to measure most of the stuff except by hiring somebody and seeing how they do.

Would you say it's fair to say that standardized testing has been harmful to Blacks and Latinos?

Yes. The standardize tests that we give I do think have been a handicap for Blacks and Latinos in the job market. They've allowed us to measure something that a Black and Latino job applicant does unusually badly on, and it's not that they're used deliberately just to exclude Blacks and Latinos, but we just don't have any ability to measure the other things that they would do better on. And it's partly because it's most of the other things that count are easier to fake. You know, if you say, 'well I really want somebody to be responsible in this job.' Well, everybody can come in and tell you how responsible they are, and you know, they can get 3 letters that say how responsible they are too, so it's really hard to screen the people who are responsible and separate them from the people who aren't, although we all know that there are big differences in that respect.

In terms of the SAT, is the United States unique in its use of the SAT and the kind of test it is?

I think there's no other country that I know of that uses the test quite like the SAT for college admissions. Some other countries have used tests of a somewhat similar character elsewhere in their system, the old 11-plus exam in England where they sorted kids into academic high schools and the comprehensive high schools was a bit like the SAT. But I don't know of any other large industrial country at least, that uses a test like the SAT for college admissions.

Do you think we're misguided in using them?

I think we'd be way better off if we gave achievement tests and didn't emphasize the so-called aptitude test or now, just the mysteriously unlabeled SAT. I don't think it would change the results in favor of minorities to any great extent in the short run, but I do think it would have a good effect in the long run.

And the reason it would have a good effect is that if you start testing achievement you send a measure to people that this is what you've got to learn to go to a good college, or to any college, whatever. And we know from all kinds of evidence that if you actually set a task like that, the minority students can do better than they're now doing. So I think that if we kind of change the way we set up the task and said this is a question of achievement, it's just like lots of other forms of achievement. You've got to work hard it, you've got to practice, you've got to get good at it.

You would have a very different state of mind than when it seems to people that this is something that is aptitude, unchangeable, inborn, you know--if I can't do, I just can't do it. That's a signal for defeat and giving up. And of course, it's not just a signal to minorities for giving up. It's a signal to any kid who tests badly and says, 'gee, I just don't get good scores on these kinds of tests.' Whereas if you tell him, 'this is a math test. You have to understand the test. Lots of people can learn that math if they work hard at it.'

Is the SAT the primary problem for minority students applying to college?

In the case of a test like the SAT, I don't think we have much reason to believe that the SAT underestimates the academic skills that minority kids have acquired at the end of twelth grade. I think they really are behind and that we need to do something about that.

So when you say, 'well it's a problem with the test.' The problem isn't just with the test. The problem is that there actually has not been the same kind of academic achievement in the schools these kids attend, or in many cases even when they're attending schools with non-minority kids. Many of them haven't been working as hard, they haven't been taking these demanding courses. They're not applying themselves to these tasks in the same way and therefore they're not learning as much. That's a problem you shouldn't blame on the test. We need to blame that on the whole system that led to the result that they didn't actually know as much.

At the University of California right now, there's a debate going on with some recommending scrapping the SAT because the minority enrollments are down so much.

When people ask, 'should you get rid of the SAT?' The question is--well, what are you going to put in its place? What's the alternative?

There's almost nothing that works better than the SAT. Grades in high school work a little better, but they don't work much better. They might be 20%, so we're kind of left with the problem of picking a selection system that won't work very well and will have a lot of consequences nonetheless.

There are two consequences of a selection system that I think really matter. One is--who does it let in and who does it not let in? We've been talking a lot about that.

The other consequence is--what does it do to encourage or discourage kids in school doing the work you'd like them to do?

Well, if you give a test like the SAT, which you say you can't study for, that doesn't encourage anybody to do anything useful in school. In fact it tells them if you've got good scores and don't work too hard, you'll probably get into a pretty good school anyway. And if you've got bad scores and really work really hard and get A's, you may not get into a good school nonetheless. This is not the message that you'd want to send if you were running a school or a school system or a country, I think.

Then you look at it the other way, and say-- well, who gets in and who doesn't get in under this system? Well, high school grades give you a somewhat more diverse set of kids who will qualify for a place like Harvard or Berkeley or whatever than these tests do. And I think it would be better to use the grades than the test. But you do have to address the problem of how you're going to keep the schools honors in some way and not have them just inflate their grades so that they'll get more people into top schools.

Beginning in 1988 the black/white test score gap widened. And for the last ten years, it's been pulling apart. Is there any explanation for why that happened?

Actually the gap started to widen in 1988 and it continued to widen for about six years. Since then, it looks like it's beginning to go back again. It looks like we're more on track then when we were.

What seems to have happened, there was a big cultural change of some kind in the Black community. The percentage of kids who said that they ever read a book for pleasure or talked about a book to a friend, or who went and bought a book with their own money among Black kids fell very precipitously starting after 1988. Now, Ron Ferguson who discovered this fact about what had happened, argues that this was related to sort of rap music and all this kind of thing. Obviously there's no hard evidence about what the cause was. But it's not at all surprising that if people read a lot less books and are spending less time talking about books and so forth, their reading scores will go down and interestingly their reading scores went down way more than the math scores during this period. The math scores actually didn't fall appreciably and I think that reflects partly the fact that we're doing a better job teaching math in school.

You mentioned that the reason Blacks lag behind is because they are not as committed as whites, to achievement academically and so there's just this aversion to acting White. Is that really true?

I think the evidence that Blacks are more averse to doing well academically than whites is pretty weak. But the problem is that everybody in America is kind of nervous about looking like a nerd, or looking like an A-student. I mean high school kids don't treat A-students as kindly as they treat some other people--football stars for instance.

The thing is that Black students start out behind. So if they're going to catch up, in order to catch up, they've actually got to do more than the White students and, if they're no more academically motivated than most White students and they start out behind, they're going to stay behind. Ron Ferguson uses this wonderful analogy which I think is right. You see a track race. There's a White runner and a Black runner. The White runner is ahead and the White runner isn't running very hard, he's kind of jogging along, and then you look behind and you see the Black runner, but he's not running very hard either, he's just kind of jogging along. Well, in that circumstance you could say well, there's not the fact that the Black runner isn't trying very hard doesn't explain why he's losing, because the White runner isn't trying very hard either. But if you say what would it take for the Black runner to catch up, the answer is pretty obvious, you'd have to run faster. And it wouldn't be that hard to do it. Now, of course, then the White runner might start to run faster too.

Was it Ferguson's chapter that mentioned the evidence against "acting White?"

Most of the survey evidence about Black student's behavior suggests that there aren't big differences in the kind of standard objective measures that the surveys collected on--like cutting classes. Black and White students both cut a fair number of classes and that the Blacks are not much more likely to do that than the White students. The social cost of doing well in school--at least as best you can measure them--don't seem to be terribly different and so forth. So if you just say is there a big difference between Blacks and Whites in high school in this regard, I think the answer is, it doesn't seem to be a big difference in high school, but of course, as I said, the Black students are coming into high school with relatively low test scores and relatively poor academic preparation.

So, if they don't work harder than the White students, they're in trouble, and basically, they don't work very hard and neither do the White students. Hardly anybody does any homework in American high schools, except a tiny number of people who want to go to Ivy League colleges. This is a big problem. But it's an equal opportunity problem.

You talk about two different versions of merit. One is a prize and the other is a more subjective judgment of future performance. Can you talk about that?

When colleges talk about admission, they often talk about diversity and so forth and then conservatives say, 'no, no, no, we should be admitting on merit.'

When admissions officers think about applicants, they typically aren't thinking about what the student has already done. They're thinking about what the student might do in the future. They're kind of trying to pick horses, if you will. They're kind of looking at this kid and saying, 'well, this kid's done this and this and I think he's going to go a long way and do well and so on and so we want to admit him.' And-- 'this is a kid who did well in high school, but I don't see any spark.' They use all kinds of words you know, and so the admissions business is sort of a horse picking business. Well when you start to think about what are people going to be doing in the future, you immediately have to recognize that all kinds of things that don't have to do with academic achievement are likely to be relevant.

There's a fear now that at places like the University of California and University of Texas that these schools will now re-segregate. And you say that if we choose solely on the basis of test scores, that selective schools will be 97% White nation. What if this happens?

I think if we end up with a system in which the top schools are 97% or 98% White, this has very serious political implications for the country. Because you've got to convince people that they have some reasonable shot at making it and although most people obviously aren't thinking, will I ever get to go to Harvard, because they know pretty early on that you know, they probably won't.

The symbolism of having the top schools be almost all White and Asian is quite likely to have a real re-enforcing effect--'well, it doesn't matter what you do, you don't get there.'

And that sort of feeds back to--'well, do people do the work they need to do to go--not to Harvard--but to the University of Massachusetts or to Framingham or something? There are places that many more students are going to go to. And if they start off thinking--'well, nobody who looks like me is an academic success.'--they're not likely to get to college at all. So I think there's a ripple effect through the whole system. And of course, then there's a ripple effect into the political and economic elite as well.

Summarize what you think reducing the test gap would mean for America.

I think if we reduce the test score gap, that three big things that can happen. One is, you open up the best colleges and universities to Black and also Latino students on a basis that doesn't involve racial preferences or affirmative action or anything, but is purely on the basis of merit. I think that would solve lots of political problems in the country and it would also change the opportunity structure in a way that would make it much more equal.

The second big thing that would happen, even bigger in a way, I think, is that all the evidence we have suggests that wage disparities would shrink very dramatically. My strong guess is that at the same time the level of discrimination in the labor market against minorities will go way down if people weren't coding that dark skin means you can't do the reading or you can't do the math and so forth, to the degree that they now do.

And the third, a really huge thing that would flow from getting rid of this gap is that I think the gap now plays a big role in maintaining the sense that the self-doubt in the minority community about ability to compete in these kinds of arenas and that in turn sort of supports all kinds of separatism and the feeling, you know, 'we're never going to actually manage to make it in a integrated society, that Whites will never accept us.' All this kind of stuff, which is completely understandable in the kind of racial environment that many people now live in. And I think getting rid of these disparities and academic performance would go a long way towards changing that, just as it has for the Asians.

And you think that based on the evidence, we shouldn't be pessimistic, we should be optimistic?

I think we be should optimistic that we can do something. Now there's a question of, 'do we want to do something? Does anybody want to do something?' But I'm much more optimistic than I was 20 years ago about our capacity to do something if we want to. And I'm also very encouraged by what happened during the 1980's. I think that that suggests that you can really move this disparity in the right direction.

Now that doesn't mean it was effortless, the biggest factor in what happened in the 1980's is probably that Black parents were much better educated for the next, you know the parents of the kids who were graduating at the end of the 80's were better educated than the ones who had graduated in the end of the 70's, and that made a difference, but we got there by hard work. A lot of people fought really hard to make those things happen and they did happen. And I think the experience of the 1980's for the kids' test scores tells you that if people work at it, they can make a difference. But they actually have to have some kind of faith in the possibility in order for that to happen and we've been a little short on that in the last 20 years.

I'd say this is a case where everybody needs to do something. I don't think that the African-American community can do this without a lot of support from the White community and the political leadership. I also don't think that the White community and the political leadership in the country can do something without a lot of help from the African-American community. If this isn't everybody in it together, it isn't going to work. And it hasn't worked in the past and it won't work on this one in the future. This is like a marriage. You know, if you get into one of these cycles in which everybody is looking for, well, who's going to fix it? You're in trouble. You both got to fix it.

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