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The Mystery of Student Reading Achievement Gaps

The Mystery of Student Reading Achievement Gaps

“It is past time for America to discard the left-wing myth of systemic racism,” Mr. Pence said . . .“America is not a racist country,” Mr. Pence said.” New York Times, June 4, 2021.

Perhaps some data would be useful. In 2019, as is routinely done in alternate years, a representative sample of students in grade eight were tested by the U. S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Reading and a number of other subjects. The percentage of each group’s achievement levels were reported as Advanced, Proficient, Basic and below Basic, or very good, good, good enough and worrying. The national results in Grade 8 Reading were: 4 percent were scored at Advanced, 29 percent at Proficient, 39 percent at Basic, and 28 percent below Basic: one-third above average, nearly one third below average. This looks something like a bell curve—a normal distribution, what one would expect from many studies of large samples. But reading ability is not something like height, weight or breakfast cereal preferences. It is a vital skill, essential for education and adult life. Imagine if a pharmacy filled orders for important medicines in such a way that nearly a third of the prescriptions were incorrect. That would not be tolerated. Yet we tolerate the education equivalent.

That is the outcome for the entire public school population. NAEP did not stop there. It then analyzed the data in a number of different ways, one of which was by race/ethnicity. Twelve percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students reached the Advanced level, 42 percent were at Proficient, 31 percent were at Basic and 15 percent were below Basic: something like a bell curve skewed a bit to the right. Achievement outcomes for White, non-Hispanic, students (whom NAEP calls “White”) were something like a bell curve skewed to the left: 5 percent at Advanced, 36 percent at Proficient, 39 percent at Basic and 19 percent below Basic. Outcomes for Hispanic students were heavily skewed to the left: 1 percent at Advanced 20 percent at Proficient, 40 percent at Basic and 38 percent below Basic. Outcomes for Black students were even more heavily skewed to the left. One percent at Advanced, 14 percent at Proficient, 39 percent at Basic and 47 percent, nearly half, below Basic.

We have to keep in mind that “Asian and Pacific Islander” and “Hispanic” students can differ one from another in a wide variety of ways: language spoken in the home, national origin—native or emigrant, ancestry, etc. This essay will concentrate on the division between White, non-Hispanic, and Black Americans, for historic reasons.

In 2019 our public schools taught 80 percent of White, non-Hispanic, students to read at least at the level expected for those middle school students, but failed to teach nearly half of their Black students to read as well as eighth graders might be expected to do. To use our drugstore analogy, prescriptions would be filled correctly for Black students at a rate barely better than chance. The implications of this are appalling. Half our Black students at the crucial grade 8 level are having their life opportunities cut short because they have not been taught to read well.

If we add gender to the analysis matters are even more extreme. NAEP found that 48 percent of White females have been taught to reach the Proficient or Advanced levels in grade 8 Reading and only 14 percent are below Basic. At the other end of the distribution, more than half, 53 percent, of Black male students were tested at below Basic and just 10 percent are at Proficient or Advanced. (NAEP recorded “rounds to zero” for Black males reaching the Advanced level in grade 8 Reading.) The chances of a Black male student being taught to read well is close to one-fifth that of a female White student, one-third that of a male White student. The implications of this for the nation’s future are extremely troubling. If half of the country’s Black males are so inadequately educated that their reading ability is in doubt, so are their futures and those of their families and that of the nation as a whole.*

Those are national education outcomes. Given the highly varied nature of the United States, it is useful to focus as well on the state level. For example, there is Texas. The June Teenth holiday marks the much delayed proclamation of freedom for enslaved Black Americans in Texas. And yet, the full achievement of its promise has also been delayed in Texas, not least in the matter of educational opportunities.

Nationally, among all students in grade 8, 28 percent are scored as Reading below the Basic level; in Texas that figure is 33 percent.

One-third of middle school students in Texas have not been taught basic reading skills.

That is for all students in Texas. If acquisition of basic skills is inadequate for all students in Texas, it is no surprise that it is particularly inadequate for Black students. Just 10 percent of Black students reach the Proficient level (and “rounds to zero” for those at Advanced). The reading skills of over half of the Black students in Texas eighth grade classrooms are not brought up to the Basic category.

Schools in Texas perform on average for White and Hispanic students and very much worse than the national average for Black students.

We can take the education level achieved for White, non-Hispanic, students in grade 8 as an indicator of the level reached by a group for which the schools were designed, with all due qualifications of that assertion. We find the following. Nationally, 53% of Black students are classified by NAEP as Basic, Proficient or Advanced, which is 65% of the White, non-Hispanic, outcome. In Texas, just 47% of Black students are reading at grade level, which is 59% of the state’s achievement for White, non-Hispanic students.

NAEP Grade 8 Reading USA TX
All students % at Grade Level 72% 67%
White, non-Hispanic % at Grade Level 81% 80%
Black % at Grade Level 53% 47%
Black % of White at Grade Level 65% 59%

* * *

Public schools in the United States, as a whole, are good enough for 80 percent of White students and need to improve for the other 20 percent. They are not good enough, on average, for half of their Black students. Why is that? One theory is that the issue is not race, but household income.

NAEP allows us to look at the racial ethnic group grade 8 Reading results by eligibility for the School Lunch Program—roughly, lower than average incomes compared to more prosperous households. Nationally, 69 percent of White, non-Hispanic, students who are eligible for the School Lunch programs reach the Basic and above levels, while 86% of those with family incomes too high for the School Lunch program reach the Basic and above levels. For Black students, 49% of the eligible group reach the Basic and above levels.

Household income matters quite a bit for acquisition of reading skills for White, non-Hispanic, students (a 12% difference), hardly at all for Black students (4%). The gap between Black and White grade eight NAEP Reading scores is 28 percentage points nationally, 33 percentage points in Texas, despite the fact that the gap in household income is narrower in Texas than the national average.

Household income, then, does not appear to explain the gap in reading skills. Rather, I would posit, it is the reverse: lack of basic reading skills, in general, inferior educational opportunities, such as that for Black students in Texas, results in a gap in household income in successive generations. The fact that schools do not teach close to 60 percent of Black male students in Texas to read fluently (and nearly as large a percentage nationally) contributes to limited high school graduation and further education possibilities, which in turn limit possibilities for good jobs and upward mobility. Texas is far from alone in producing large racial gaps in NAEP reading scores. Similar, if slightly less dramatic gaps can be seen in other states. This, and the related high incarceration rates for Black males limits household income for Black Texans and other Black Americans, passing those limitations onto the next generation.

How is this to be explained if, as when former Vice President Pence tells us, there is no systemic racism in this country? Or is systemic racism invisible to those who benefit from it, like water for fish? When injustice has been perpetuated for a sufficient length of time—generations, say—it seems natural to those benefitting from it. Kings do not protest against monarchy; aristocrats and millionaires rarely have protested against class-based societies; only after millennia did men begin to notice the oppression of women. Admitting the systemic racism found in American education is a necessary step to ending it.

Michael Holzman

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