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Jeanne Brooks-Gunn: Education and the Black-White Test Score Gap

New York--African Americans currently score lower than European Americans on vocabulary, reading and math tests as well as on tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. This gap appears before children enter kindergarten and it persists into adulthood. It has narrowed since 1970, but the average American black still scores below 75% of American whites on standardized test scores.

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child and Parent Development and Education, says " Socioeconomic factors, such as family and neighborhood poverty, make a difference… They account for more than Hernstein and Murray thought they did."

Brooks-Gunn is referring to the 1994 work of Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve, which enflamed the debate over the role of genetic and environmental factors in explaining the black-white test score gap. Hernstein and Murray argued that that contemporary racial differences in socioeconomic status are not large enough to explain the gap. They also maintained that social and economic inequalities are weak predictors of children's test scores and that environmental effects may merely be proxies for genetic effects.

Brooks-Gunn and colleagues contributed to the new work, The Black White Test Score Gap, published by the Brookings Institution and edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips. The co-editors write that the black-white test score gap is not an inevitable fact of nature. "Despite endless speculation," they add, "no one has found a genetic evidence indicating that blacks have less innate ability than whites."

In an interview with Brooks-Gunn, she says, "Our work has shown that Hernstein and Murray were wrong in saying that black and white children were growing up in more comparable socioeconomic environments in the 80's and 90's than they really were. Our national data told us that Michael Harrington's book of the 60's The Other America, about two separate world of black and white children, still exists. Even as things have gotten better with a larger black middle class, on average, black children in this country are living in much poorer neighborhoods and in much poorer families. That's very important for people to realize."

"Our findings," Brooks-Gunn says, "also reveal that while black and white parents of today may be graduating at more or less similar rates from high school it doesn't mean that they are receiving the same quality of education."

Not only does the quality and quantity of parents' schooling impact the test score gap, but Professor Brooks-Gunn says, " the educational climate of the home in the early years accounts for a large portion of the black-white gap in elementary school achievement test scores---even controlling for parents' education, quality of education, and cognitive ability."

Being poor, therefore, in the first five years of a child's life is more negatively related to high school completion than being poor in the elementary or middle school years. "Consequently, Brooks-Gunn says, "we have focused on the early years to study the black-white gap and to recommend programs to reduce the gap early on."

The research is also emphatic about the "effects of grandparents' education directly on their grandchildren's test scores…In fact, the differences in black and white grandparents' years of schooling affected the test score gap."

So, we may ask the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor, what does that tell us?

Brooks-Gunn is direct and unequivocal in her response. " That's telling me it's going to take more than one generation to reduce the test score gap… So my guess is that over time, as we equalize---if we do equalize--- educational quality so that we don't have a race difference in educational quality, we should see the test score gap decline over time…"

But Brooks-Gunn cautions that while there is evidence that the test score gap is declining over time, "We shouldn't expect it all to happen in one generation. And that's really important for those of us who would like things to happen fast."

Inroads into the gap can be made in a profound way, according to Brooks-Gunn, by looking at the literary environment in the home and focusing on reading activities in the home. Early childhood programs and family literacy programs have the potential, Brooks-Gunn says of enhancing school readiness of poor children.

"Since disproportionately more black parents are poor than white parents, and since mothers of families who are poor are less likely to engage in literacy environments, these programs can make a difference …And the point is that we have to work with parents--- not just in pre-school--- but also during elementary school."

Brooks-Gunn is hopeful that the gap will be eliminated and recommends that the "focus should be on poverty." She believes that multifaceted national and local programs that end the disparities in income and the quality of education for the poor and near poor, are the answers.

"To me the issue comes back to poverty and everything that goes with it, which includes school quality, low literacy, violent neighborhoods, less access to health and child care."

For Brooks-Gunn, her research for The Black white Test Score Gap speaks to education, at a variety of levels. "If we want to do something about the test score gap we have to do something about education. It means focusing on the early childhood years and connections between pre-school and elementary school, to help parents and their families help their kids. It also means looking at education across the lifespan, and even across generations, to understand what happens and why its hard for poor kids to overcome, if you will, obstacles."

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