Minority Academic Progress Falters

Published January 1, 1997

Reading scores for minority students are falling further behind those of white students, according to a report released in December by the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that monitors student performance.

According to the report, the gap in reading scores between minority and nonminority students nearly doubled between 1988 and 1992, virtually eliminating the progress that that had been made during the preceding ten years. The gap between blacks and whites stood at 30 points in 1980, fell to 18 points in 1988, but then rose to 30 points again in 1992.

Minority students are even further behind white students in math scores, although the fall since 1986 was smaller than in the case of reading. The gap in math scores was 38 points in 1978, 31 points in 1986, and 38 points in 1992.

The authors of the report blame the test score gap on spending inequalities and the fact that many public schools exclude children from low-income families from college-preparatory programs. Only 28.3 percent of students from low-income families take college preparatory courses, compared to 65.1 percent of students from more affluent families.

Daniel Polsby, a professor of law at Northwestern University who has closely studied the Chicago Public Schools, said the new report has considerable public policy importance. “These findings directly contradict the notion that public schools are succeeding in helping minority kids or kids from low income homes,” said Polsby. “The great myth that public schools are educating the kids that private schools don’t want to deal with is pretty much destroyed.”

Polsby also said that other studies have found that private schools, and Catholic schools in particular, do a better job helping minority students achieve at nonminority academic levels.

Polsby said he was “disappointed but not surprised” that Education Trust did not include private school choice (“vouchers”) among its policy recommendations. “It is easier to call for more money and minor reforms than it is to endorse reforms that really shake up the status quo,” he said.