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What would a world with no racial achievement gaps in schools look like? Here are two visions

Oct 7, 2015

We’ve talked a lot on State of Opportunity about racial achievement gaps - how the average test score for black, Hispanic or Native American kids isn’t as high as the average test score for a white or Asian student.

Now we want to talk about what the real world implications of those gaps might be. We tried to tackle the question by asking: What would the world look like if racial achievement gaps suddenly disappeared?

"There are two possible answers to that question," says Derek Neal, an economist at the University of Chicago. His research is focused on black-white inequality, and he’s studied how test scores play into that.

His two possible answers for a world without racial achievement gaps relate to two different levels of achievement. Because a world without racial gaps doesn’t mean a world where every kid has a high test score. It just means that each racial group has the same percentage of kids with high test scores, and the same percentage with low test scores.

"Black youth that make it to high school and, say, have a 1200 SAT score and good grades, they go on to get as much or more education as white youth, and do very well in the labor market, relative to their white counterparts," says Derek Neal.

And if you move more kids from racial minority groups into the higher score levels, Neal says, that’s good for their future.

"Black youth that make it to high school and, say, have a 1200 SAT score and good grades, they go on to get as much or more education as white youth," he says, "and do very well in the labor market, relative to their white counterparts."

So that’s the first possible answer. The second is this:

"The ones that remained, the ones that still have low skill levels, the same as there are still some whites with low skill levels, they would probably not do as well as their white counterparts."

These people would still have a harder time finding a job than white people with low academic achievement. And when they did find a job, they might make less money. That’s the prediction at least. So, in Neal’s view, inequality would be hugely reduced, but it would still exist.

So, taken together, this represents one vision for what the world would look like if racial achievement gaps were eliminated.

But there is another possible vision. I heard it from Janet Helms, an education researcher at Boston College.

"Well, let me say, you might be asking the wrong person that question," Helms told me. "Because most of my work has been focused on showing that the achievement gap, actually, doesn’t have any meaning."

It doesn’t have meaning, Helms says, because our conception of racial groups doesn’t have much meaning. To understand where she’s coming from, just think of the two main pieces of data researchers use to describe racial achievement gaps. One piece of data is the test score. Another piece is whichever box a student checks to describe their race.

Most researchers accept that checkmark for what it is. Not Helms. She studies black racial identity.

"And that’s essentially how people define themselves within their racial group," she says.

This, it turns out, matters a lot when it comes to test scores. Because one thing Helms has been able to show is that a huge part of the test score gap for black students comes down to how strongly they are immersed in black culture, and maybe more importantly, how much they withdraw from what they perceive as white culture. The test might be written with grammar and syntax completely unlike what’s spoken in their neighborhoods, with examples completely unlike scenarios that happen in their neighborhoods.

" ... that ought not to be what we are doing," Janet Helms says about comparing test scores of different racial groups. "I realize that it's built into our social policy, it's built into the way people think about things. But I think there really is not a fair way to compare groups."

Helms says it’s not that these kids necessarily know less than the white kids. That might be true and it might not. What’s true, in her view, is that our way of measuring knowledge carries a cultural bias. So when it comes to comparing black students and white students:

"My position is that ought not to be what we are doing," Helms says. "I realize that it’s built into our social policy, it’s built into the way people think about things. But I think there really is not a fair way to compare groups."

So, rather than changing the kids to do better on the tests, Helms says we should be changing the tests – and really the entire educational experience – to better reflect the cultural identities of the kids.

And maybe that, is a vision for what a world without achievement gaps would look like.