How race and class relate to standardized tests

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

What is the so-called achievement gap?

In the vast majority of standardized tests, average scores for African American and Latino students are significantly lower than average scores for White and Asian students. Many object to calling this an “achievement gap,” citing vastly different resources available to students in different circumstances. The gap in scores has shrunk over the last few decades, but it is still wide and persistent.

How large is the Black-White test score gap?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a test often called “the nation’s report card.” This year, in reading and math, 43 percent of White 8th graders scored Proficient or above, compared to 13 percent of African Americans.

On the 2015 SAT taken for college admission, the average combined score for Whites was 1576; for African Americans, it was 1277. On the 2015 Keystone Algebra exam, 57 percent of White Philadelphia 11th graders scored Proficient or above, while 30 percent of Black 11th graders did.

How about Latinos and Asians?

On the 2015 NAEP reading and math tests, 19 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of Asians scored Proficient or above.

On the 2015 SAT, Hispanics’ average scores ranged from 1343 to 1347, depending on their nationality. For Asians, it was 1654. On the 2015 Keystone Algebra exam, 26 percent of Philadelphia Hispanics and 72 percent of Asians scored Proficient or above.

What are the reasons for these gaps?

Many researchers say that an “opportunity gap” leads to an “achievement gap.” Socio-economic factors including income levels, educational attainment, employment rates, housing options, neighborhood crime rates, and resources available to schools, are worse for African Americans and Hispanics, on average, than for Whites. These circumstances often lead to fewer opportunities for African American and Hispanic children to access a wide range of activities and experience an enriched educational environment from birth onward.

African Americans and Hispanics often do not have the educational advantages that more wealth brings. More White students than Blacks and Hispanics have parents who went to college – the mother’s education level is a major test score predictor. For tests like the SAT, affluent students can pay for private coaching.

Many Hispanic children live in households where English is not the first language, sometimes giving them access to fewer educational resources.

As for the higher scores, on average, by Asians, a recent study concluded that “Asian and Asian American youth are harder working because of cultural beliefs that emphasize the strong connection between effort and achievement. Studies show that Asian and Asian American students tend to view cognitive abilities as qualities that can be developed through effort,” rather than being inborn.

How great is the correlation between poverty and scores on standardized tests?

There is a strong relationship. A 2015 statewide study of school results on the 2012-13 PSSAs and Keystone exams by the Philadelphia-based Research for Action showed this clearly: “Exceptions are rare,” it said. In reading, “of more than 2,200 schools in this sample, 187 post proficiency rates of 90 or above. Of these, just seven schools (3.7%) have economically disadvantaged enrollments of 50 percent or higher; five of the seven are Philadelphia magnet schools.”

Other studies show the same results. One researcher wrote that the surest way to predict a student’s test scores was by looking at the amount of poverty in their zip code.

Do lower-income students score far below their middle- and upper-income counterparts?

On the 2015 NAEP, only 18 percent of 8th-grade students eligible for the National School Lunch Program, an indicator of poverty, scored Proficient or above on math, while 48 percent of those whose family income priced them out of lunch eligibility scored Proficient or above. There is a similar gap on other tests.

Some research asserts that this gap is growing.

Is there race and class bias in the tests themselves?

Some advocates and researchers point to cultural biases in tests – for example, expecting test-takers to know some aspect of a test question that more affluent students are more likely to have encountered than poorer children.

Testing expert Jay Rosner says that the SAT shows a pattern of discarding possible test questions that Black students get right more often than White students in field tests because they are seeking to maintain the reliability of the test, which means taking into account the relatively higher scores of White test-takers.

The makers of the SAT say that test questions are race-neutral and undergo a statistical “fairness review” before their inclusion.

The core of what makes the tests inequitable, many researchers and advocates say, is not mainly the tests themselves, but the circumstances, from birth onward, of the children taking them.