Ask a Scholar: Current Racial Score Gap Stats

Stephan Thernstrom

Dear Ask a Scholar,

Regarding score gaps between blacks and whites on NAEP - the Thernstroms in No Excuses wrote that the typical black 17-year-old scored no better than the white 13-year-old. That book was using data from the 90s - is this still true today?

- Alejandro Duran
Answered by Stephan Thernstrom, who is the Winthrop Research Professor of History at Harvard University, where he taught American social history from 1973 to 2008. His books include Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth-Century City (1964), The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880-1970 (1973), A History of the American People (1984), and (with his wife Abigail) America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible (1997) and No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003). 
In 2003, my wife Abigail and I published a book titled No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. It opened with a review of the evidence demonstrating how badly African American children were doing in our schools, and then proceeded to review what might explain their poor performance and what might be done to improve it. We noted that black children are far behind whites (and Asians) when they enter school, and ever farther behind at the end of high school. In fact, at the age of 17 they are no better in reading or math than whites still in junior high.
The latest published National Assessment of Educational Progress data available to us when our book went to press were from the 1998 NAEP reading tests and the 2000 NAEP math tests. After the passage of more than a decade, do things look any better?
Alas, the answer is no. The latest precisely comparable evidence is from the 2008 NAEP Trend Study (it can be checked at Another Trend assessment is underway at the present, and results should be out towards the end of 2012.)
In 2008, black 17-year-olds had a median reading score of 266 (on a scale that runs up to 500.)  Whites aged 13 actually scored two points higher than African Americans four years older than they were. The same was true in math, with white 13-year-olds averaging a score of 290 and black 17-year-olds only 287.
The more recent assessments that have been completed, such as the 2011 Reading and Mathematics reports, are not strictly comparable from year to year for technical reasons.  For one thing, they do not include high school students at all. But NAEP analysts think that they are comparable enough to report discouragingly that the black/white gap in reading for 8th-graders narrowed between 1998 and 2011 in just one state--tiny Delaware. In math, similarly, the 31 point gap between black and white students in the 8th grade was only two points smaller than it had been two decades ago. 
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