Reducing black-white test score gap begins early at home

University Park, Pa.-- In 2003 the Supreme Court ruled in support of affirmative action in college admissions, but their ruling suggested that affirmative action should become unnecessary in the next 25 years. However, a large test score gap between Black and White students indicates that there is still much work to be done to achieve equality, especially in the developmental period before children begin school, according to a Penn State researcher.

"Research shows that when Blacks and Whites attend school together, Black students typically earn lower grades," says George Farkas, professor of sociology, demography and education in his recent American Sociological Association Contexts article "The Black-White Test Score Gap." Farkas observed that this racial gap in K-12 course grades is reflected in a large racial gap in standardized test scores among children of all ages.

"The gap is not as bad as it once was," Farkas explains. "From 1970 to 1990, economic and social gains decreased the gap in standardized test scores between White and African-American students by about 40 percent, but since 1990 the gap has not decreased at all."

While some commentators argue for other possible explanations such as biased testing, discrimination by teachers, test anxiety among Black students, disparities in income or family structure, and cultural and genetic differences, recent research points to differences between African-American and White family interaction when children are very young.

"Discrimination by teachers no doubt exists, but it is unlikely to account for much of the test score gap." Farkas says. "A large portion of the gap is already present before schooling begins. In addition, one in three African-American elementary school students has an African-American teacher, and studies fail to provide strong evidence that Black students achieve higher test scores when their teachers are Black."

The Penn State researcher summarizes research showing that parents' verbal interaction with their preschool children explains much of the early test score differences between children of different social class and racial backgrounds. He emphasizes that reducing the test score gap must begin early, with increased verbal interaction between parents and children.

"Research has shown that greater verbal interaction between parents and young children improves students' performance on standardized tests," Farkas says. "By the age of three, professional parents had spoken an estimated 35 million words to their children, working- and middle-class had spoken about 20 million words, and lower-class parents had only spoken about 10 million words."

These families differed not only in the total number of words spoken, but also in the number of different vocabulary words used in these conversations. These differences had strong effects on the vocabulary knowledge developed by the children in these families.

"By 18 to 20 months, the vocabulary growth trajectories of the children of professional parents had already accelerated beyond those of other children," Farkas adds. According to his research, there seems to be both a social class, and controlling for class, a Black-White difference in children's oral vocabulary growth from infancy to adolescence. Preschool vocabulary knowledge is a strong predictor of reading performance in early elementary school, and early elementary reading performance is a strong predictor of later school performance generally.

A number of intervention programs attempt to reduce these gaps. While some of these are promising, such as Early Head Start, which works with low-income children before ordinary Head Start begins, the Penn State researcher emphasizes that more and better verbal interaction between African-American parents and their children is necessary to prepare children for school. He adds many programs have shown, at best, mixed success in reaching and significantly helping those children and families most in need.

"My own contribution has been to develop a one-to-one tutoring program in reading using college students and other low-cost paraprofessionals," says Farkas, also a research associate with Penn State's Population Research Institute. "This has been implemented in a large number of locations, and shows promise in helping children who have fallen behind during early elementary school.

"The Supreme Court suggested a 25-year delay before ending affirmative action in college admissions," he adds. "To ensure continuing equality of opportunity, African-American students taking the SAT that year will have to be better prepared than African-American students taking the test today. We have about seven years before those children are born, so we had better get busy."

Last Updated July 28, 2017