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Research desk responds: How does the achievement gap vary by state?

By Dylan Matthews

roberthemphill asks:

What states experience the highest racial achievement gap and how is has that changed over the course of history?

Thankfully, the Department of Education keeps great, great data (PDF) on this very subject, with individual graphs for each states, on both reading and math tests, showing how the achievement gap between black and white students has changed since 1990. Including all of that would make this post interminable, so here is how the reading test gap with fourth-grade students varies across the states; there are also data for eight-graders, but the information includes fewer states (click for a readable version):


Here are the same data, but with math scores:


As the tiny print at the bottom of each graph explains, states with negligible black populations -- Vermont, Utah, Idaho, etc. -- are not counted. D.C. leads both lists, which one might expect given its combination of upper-middle-class whites and poor or working-class black residents, but the states that follow it are less predictable. On math, for example, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Illinois and Connecticut immediately follow, topping southern states where legally enforced school segregation was a more recent phenomenon. Among southern states, the deep South, where one might expect to see the largest gaps, does not stand out, with Alabama and Mississippi doing roughly as well as the Carolinas or Tennessee. Hawaii and West Virginia report the smallest gaps in both surveys. Both have notably small black populations, which provide less opportunity for de facto school segregation.

In any case, the Department of Education report (PDF) on the achievement gap is a really stellar research document, and it's hard to think of a question on state-level achievement gaps to which it does not have an answer. If you want to know more, dig in.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 30, 2010; 4:29 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Next: Reconciliation


Eliminate the DOE. The more they interfere, the worse education gets. It's certainly an unwarranted intrusion into state business.
In 2000, the Dept. of Education budget was $33 billion. Today it is $64 billion. Has education improved? Have drop-out rates improved? Have reading or math scores improved? We've doubled the budget- yet the results are worse than ever.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | June 30, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this info! Good stuff.

Posted by: slag | June 30, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Is there a measure for biracial progress? The test scores of students who share black and white parents? What about the grandparent breakdown? How do youths with two white grandparents and one black do compared to youths with two black grandparents and one white? How about asking the kids -- before they take the test -- who is there primary guardian, and how they racially identify? Is there data collected yet for that? If not, apply for the grant so we all can digg in and analyze.

Is it genetics, or nurturing? Does it follow on the mother, or the paternal side? What about when you throw in a Hispanic spawn into a biracial pool? (ie/ how do those mixed blood Puerto Ricans measure up?)

The data you've presented is just the tip of the iceberg. Until we have DNA sampling, and blood tied backgrounding from 10 generations back, it's inconclusive to sample them so minimally on these grounds.

You know? With critters, we band and track them. Why not band and track these little human critters, who they breed with, and how they subsequently perform on standardized tests.

It may be the only way for the State to discover how best to allocate taxpayer resources, for the most needy and where the most investment will make sense. Nevermind the parents, let the State step in to help improve these numbers you've uncovered.

Posted by: Mary42 | June 30, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

"Nevermind the parents, let the State step in to help improve these numbers you've uncovered"

I wasn't going to comment on this until I saw this statement. This is absurd, as are the concerns about genetics. It's all about the environment, the family and the community support the kids get for schooling. I have taught science and math in West Africa, and my students there were every bit as bright and hardworking as the undergraduates I later had as a TA at one of the UCs.Of course those African kids weren't exposed to American gangster culture or made to feel like dorks by their fellow students for studying hard. They understood very clearly that education was their ticket to a better future. This was instilled by their family/community and not by the state..jeez, I can't believe that I read these comments in the Washington Post.

I find reports such as these really distasteful..I wish that the focus were on economics (family financial status) rather than skin color. When are we finally going to give up on labeling folks by skin color?

Posted by: Beagle1 | June 30, 2010 8:34 PM | Report abuse

"Among southern states, the deep South, where one might expect to see the largest gaps, does not stand out, with Alabama and Mississippi doing roughly as well as the Carolinas or Tennessee. "

Alabama and Mississippi do poorly on educating their children but at least they are equal opportunity neglecters of education. Their racial achievement *gaps* aren't any worse than Carolinas -- but their *achievement* is worse.

Absolute achievement matters too!

Posted by: grooft | July 1, 2010 1:07 AM | Report abuse

The State needs to provide numbers further broken down: are the kids black, white or biracial? Who is raising them? Do they get fed breakfast in the home, or at the school? On the days off from school, where are the children? What are the colors and ethnicities of the daycare workers who are the primary teachers of these children (parents are the first teachers of children who are raised in the home.)

Clearly without racial backgrounds and breakdowns of all the people touching these black, white and biracial (do we track the Asians too -- and how do we break down their ethnicities?) we don't know for sure why Jonny isn't learning but John is.

Please -- more money for studies. Until the data is complete and we can study these children not as children, but as race representatives properly tagged and classified, we will have no clue how to help our children learn.

Posted by: Mary42 | July 1, 2010 1:26 AM | Report abuse

It's about equality not about providing the best educations for children. So long as the black and white kids (what about the biracials?) score similarly, it doesn't matter how dumb they are. The State, according to the libs who track this, has done it's job! No educational racial disparity -- pass the free gov'mint cheese and what's for breakfast at school in the morning, Daddy?

Posted by: Mary42 | July 1, 2010 1:30 AM | Report abuse

Reports like this are purely racist and actually contribute to people's self mental images. By labeling people as belonging to a race, and then shoving in de facto segregation as the assumed cause, you just make it clear how race obsessed your thinking is. Immediately leaping to blame the school is usually the second step, followed by requests for more money.

Closing this gap is a ridiculous goal- as race does not cause poor learning. Making people forget the racist labels that people like you and the Dept of Ed. keep sticking on them is a much more laudable goal. Creating a pervasive culture that values education is my objective, people like you stand in the way.

Posted by: staticvars | July 2, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

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