Closing Achievement Gaps

Test score disparities among racial and ethnic groups are a prominent feature of today’s educational landscape, with black and Hispanic children regularly falling far behind white children. Although the achievement gaps narrowed somewhat during the 1970s and 1980s, they have since proved stubbornly resistant to closing further. If the nation is to achieve the goal of equal education as “a fact and a result,” to borrow President Lyndon Johnson’s words, we must commit ourselves to overcoming the substantial racial and ethnic differences in educational achievement that remain.

Although the achievement gap is normally seen as a problem affecting school-age children, in fact the gap first opens during the preschool years. The Early Childhood Education Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a nationally representative sample of nearly 23,000 kindergartners, shows that black and Hispanic children score substantially (more than half a standard deviation, or the equivalent of 8 points on an IQ test with a standard deviation of 15) below white children at the beginning of kindergarten on math and reading achievement. The Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES), an assessment administered to children entering Head Start, shows that the program’s children, disproportionately minorities from low-income families, already fall well short (up to a standard deviation, or 15 points on an IQ test) in vocabulary, early reading, letter recognition, and early math by ages three and four. Finally, Christopher Jencks of Harvard and Meredith Phillips of UCLA, using nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth–Child Data, found that about 85 percent of black three- and four-year-olds scored lower on a vocabulary test than did the average white child of the same age.