While the national obsession with testing is often frustrating for teachers, students and parents alike, it does have a silver lining: We are now awash in data on student performance.
These data points are showing some interesting things. According to a recent article in Education Week (go to Edweek.org, then search for "Black-White Gap Widens Faster for High Achievers;" the URL is too long to type easily in Blogger), a series of papers presented at the American Education Research Association meeting this year showed that the achievement gap between high-scoring black and white students grows faster as these children progress through school than the gap between lower-scoring black and white students.
The results are pretty clear. The first study Ed Week mentions, by Sean Reardon, a professor of education and sociology at Stanford, analyzed the findings from the 7,000-student Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (which tracked kids from kindergarten to fifth grade). Reardon found that the black-white achievement gap grew twice as fast among students who scored above the mean as it did among those who scored below the mean. (A link to a PDF of the paper is included from the Ed Week site).
The second study, from economists Steven Rivkin and Erik Hanushek (incidentally, one of my personal favorite researchers), tracked 800,000 Texas children from 3rd grade through 8th grade. They grouped the children into four quartiles based on 3rd grade reading scores, and then compared later test results. They found that the higher the initial scores, the more the scores between black and white students diverged on later tests.
A third study, by Harvard researcher Lindsay Page, sheds a bit of light on these findings. She discovered that differences between schools, as opposed to within schools, contributed more to the black-white achievement gap in recent years. As she noted, "the cost in achievement to black students from attending racially segregated schools increased over the last three decades of the 20th century."
What does this mean? It's actually an important point. It's fashionable to lament that in schools with extensive ability grouping, white students are over-represented, and black students are under-represented, in the top tracks (for an example of one such lament, see this op-ed from doctoral student Beth Rhodes that ran recently in the Roanoke Times). But the reality is that, over the past 30 years, there has been almost no change in the proportion of black and white students actually attending the same schools in order to be unfairly transferred into certain tracks in the first place.
According to Page's study, between 1971 and 1999, the average white student attended a school that was 7-8% black, and the average black student attended a school that was about 60% black. For a variety of reasons -- too many to get into here -- Americans have largely maintained patterns of residential segregation, which then correspond to school segregation. Given recent Supreme Court decisions that limit circumstances in which schools can take race into account for enrollment, this is unlikely to change soon.
(I do want to add, though, that the issue is more complicated than people often think. Last year I had the pleasure of visiting Louisville's Central High School, a fairly strong school which has long played a prominent role in the city's African American community. In the midst of Louisville's desegregation push, Central was required to limit its enrollment to 50% black students, which required it turn down many neighborhood kids, kids whose parents had fond memories of Central, kids drawn to its special programs, etc., all because these kids were black. But the school had to take any white kid who walked in the door. A judge eventually said enough is enough and let its enrollment reflect the make-up of its application pool).
Anyway, Central High School's reasonable results aside, many predominantly black schools are plagued by poor discipline, bad teachers, low expectations, and have a high proportion of students whose families do not particularly value education. These schools often look less like safe, orderly Central, and more like Malcolm X. Shabazz High School in Newark, whose metal detectors and guards, one parent once told me, made the place seem harder to get into than an airport. At Shabazz, in 2007, only 14% of 11th graders passed the math section of New Jersey's High School Proficiency Assessment, which is required to graduate.
For a variety of lamentable reasons, the average academic performance at an average predominantly black school is lower than the average academic performance at a predominantly white school. This affects all children, but it affects one particular group in a particularly horrible way: gifted black students.
As Reardon notes, "the average black kindergarten student with a given level of math or reading skill attends a school with lower mean cognitive skill than the average similarly-skilled white kindergarten student. Initially high-skilled black students will be in schools where they are farther above the median student than similarly-skilled white students. If curriculum and instruction in schools are tailored to the median student in the school, then high skill black students will, on average, receive less challenging curriculum and instruction than their similar white peers, leading potentially to differential rates of achievement growth between such students."
This is a critical point. People who complain about racial disparities in ability-grouping within schools are talking about integrated schools. The majority of black students do not attend highly integrated schools. In an all-black school, it should go without saying that all the tracks, high to low, will be all-black.
And it turns out that creating those tracks may be more important than anyone previously realized. A student who scores at the 98th percentile on tests, who is forced to attend classes aimed at the 40th percentile day-in and day-out, will become frustrated and bored. She surely won't learn as much as she could in a class aimed at the 90th percentile. Would it surprise anyone if, two years hence, her test scores have fallen in comparison to those of a white student also attending a non-tracked class that's, nonetheless, aimed at a different median score?
As the Davidsons and I wrote in Genius Denied, "Foisting 'equality' to the exclusion of excellence on schools hurts bright children, but it does not hurt all bright children equally." Better-off, better-connected parents can make other arrangements when the public schools fail to challenge their gifted kids. Gifted minority kids, and gifted poor kids, are often stuck with the schools they get.
That's why gifted education is most important for these kids. "They don't deserve to be abandoned to boredom and underachievement to satisfy someone else's agenda," we wrote. These new studies show just how dangerous that abandonment truly is.