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James Gee

James Gee


A Test: Why Was the Black-White Gap Closing When It was Closing?

Posted: 04/26/11 01:13 PM ET

This is a test.

We are well aware that our national No Child Left Behind policy was meant, in part, to address the long-running gap in early reading between black and white children. NCLB ushered in much of our accountability and testing regime. Policy makers on both the left and right admit that, while there has been progress on state tests (which are often taught to and cheated on), there has been little real progress in closing the black-white gap. National tests like NAEP (the "nation's report card"), tests that are rigorous and that are given only to a sample of students, show just that.

The probability that a poor first-grade reader will be a poor reader in the fourth grade is 0.88, and children who are behind in reading in the first grade have only a one-in-eight chance of ever catching up (see Connie Juel, Learning to Read and Write, Journal of Educational Psychology, 80.4, 1988, 437-447). Yet we have a national policy based on every child reading by third grade. The policy should be, of course, every child reading by first grade. Why isn't it? That's a good question, but it's not on this test.

The black-white gap is not closing. Perhaps this is because we have not yet discovered how to close it. Maybe it is too hard -- maybe it is impossible -- to close it. But, no, it turns out, we once had great success in closing it. We did not get to the end of the road and put the gap to bed forever, but we were getting there.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the black-white gap (and that between several other minority groups and whites), in reading tests, IQ test scores, and other sorts of test scores, was fast closing. This progress (especially in regard to reading and achievement tests) ceased, stopped dead, in the 1980s. The gap was closing fast and had such progress continued it may well have been gone now, gone forever.

Now you would think that you would have heard a lot about this from both the left wing and the right wing? You would think that our Schools of Education, full as they are of people deeply concerned with gaps and multiculturalism, would be all over this. But they are not. You would think the right wing would be all over it as well, dedicated as they are to "evidence-based" educational policies. But they, too, are not. In fact, most people do not know the gap was closing. Why they don't know this is an interesting question. But this question is not on this test either.

You would think that if we are failing to close the black-white gap today with an expensive federal policy, we would pay close attention to why the gap was closing when it was closing. But there are not many studies of the matter, though there are some good ones (e.g., see: Jencks & Phillips, Eds., The Black-White Test Score Gap, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998). We have developed national amnesia. We did once discover how to close the black-white gap. So here are the test questions: Why was the gap closing when it was? Why did such significant progress cease in the 1980s?

I will give my answer to this question in my next post. But, since we live in the Age of Testing, I thought I would give us all a test.