Guest Column

Is the Test Score Gap Really Color–Based?


The news media and academic press continue to report about the black-white test score gap and lags in minority achievement. The impression almost always left is that gaps in performance among student groups are related to skin color. Such conclusions make us all victims of self-perpetuating prejudice.

Often tucked somewhere near the end of many of these reports is a statement in fine print suggesting that parenting practices may contribute to achievement disparities.

In fact, parenting practices need to be our yardstick for first assessing and then addressing achievement gaps among groups of students. For years, educational researchers have known the greatest predictor of a child's success in school is the education level of that child's parents, particularly the mother. Yet in an era when public support for education often depends on how school districts fared on the latest accountability tests, federal and state governments continue to spend millions of dollars each year tracking student performance based on such narrow-minded criteria as race, ethnicity and gender.

It was just a few generations ago that European Americans operating plantations engaged in the repugnant abomination known as slavery. To satisfy their economic desires, they profited from the practice of placing human beings from a far continent in shackles to perpetuate an agrarian economy. Laws forbade educating slaves or permitting them to read in most Southern jurisdictions.

When the slaves were emancipated in 1865, no GI Bill of Rights or Marshall Plan assisted in their assimilation into either the workforce or culture of the United States. For the most part, people of color lived in poverty without the means to become knowledgeable workers. When civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s, some affirmative action plans and laws were put in place, and a few philanthropic efforts were made to bridge the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Nevertheless, the gap between rich and poor is still steadily growing with a greater impact on people of color than on the majority.

Legitimate Comparisons
The educational plight of the many non-English-speaking immigrants now entering the United States, of whatever color or ethnic group, is not much different. Their parents have little formal education and lack the resources to provide academic stimulation and appropriate diet at home.

The findings of noted University of Chicago neurologist Peter Huttenlocher emphasize the importance of mental stimulation in the home environment and the positive impact of a high protein diet. His research over the course of the last two decades has proven that most of the brain gets built after birth. The fact is young people who have well-educated parents, an academically stimulating home environment and high protein diets tend to do much better in school than youngsters without these benefits.

More than a decade ago, M. Donald Thomas, once a highly respected superintendent in Salt Lake City, was making a presentation to the joint session of the South Carolina legislature. He explained to the policymakers that school district goals should be based on the performance of "mean-matched" schools.

When asked to define what he meant by mean-matched, Thomas explained that schools should be compared with those schools having similar demographic populations. "We want to compare apples with apples," he said. Although human beings are born with very similar ranges of intelligence, the different nurturing process that takes place in the formative years has a tremendous impact on a child's ability to learn, he added.

A Proper Yardstick
The point is that children who are born with similar intelligence levels arrive at school with a wide range of ability. This is not a function of their race, religion, gender, ethnic group, color of hair, height or anything other than the nurturing stimulation, or lack thereof, that they receive at home prior to entering school.

Most studies have compared school districts unfairly using data such as total corporate and individual tax base per pupil, which researchers have shown to have virtually no relationship to student learning outcomes. The fact is students from high socioeconomic homes have great advantages in doing school work and are more likely to have access to computers and other learning devices in their many hours away from school.

We should join in shunning the tendency among writers, even highly educated university researchers, to blame the failings of a society on factors such as race and ethnicity. It's logical to assume that children whose parents and grandparents have not had the opportunity to learn how to provide an academically challenging environment would have greater problems developing learning ability than those who enjoy such academic stimulation.

While there are many examples of highly successful people who grew up in poverty and found mental stimulation and protein by good fortune, our research continues to indicate a direct correlation between the education level of the people in the home and amount of protein in the diet and student success in school. Our "Audits of Educational Effectiveness" conducted in hundreds of U.S. school systems reveal a high correlation between student success on state-administered examinations and their parents’ educational level. Future scholarly research on this subject should use the appropriate yardstick.

William Bainbridge, a former superintendent in Ohio and Virginia, is president of SchoolMatch, 5027 Pine Creek Drive, Westerville, OH 43081. E-mail: