We Must Face Persistent Racial Gaps in Academic Performance

We Must Face Persistent Racial Gaps in Academic Performance
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
We Must Face Persistent Racial Gaps in Academic Performance
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
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In covering the most highly publicized “affirmative action” lawsuit in decades – against Harvard University -- the news media are continuing their pattern of averting their eyes from stubborn facts that cut against their ideological preferences. 

In recent trial testimony, Harvard and other selective schools claim that the only way they can maintain adequate racial diversity is to use large racial preferences to admit a great many more black (and brown) students than would otherwise get in based on their academic performance. 

A person of ordinary curiosity might wonder: Why is that? Just what is the state of black academic performance, after more than 40 years of racial preferences? Is it improving? How soon might significantly more black students gain enough ground on whites and Asian-Americans to win admission to selective universities based on merit? And what about the Supreme Court’s unanimous assertion in 2003 that “[e]nshrining a permanent justification for racial preferences” would be unconstitutional? 

The news media, like the universities, do not ask questions like these because they cannot accept honest answers, which include the following inconvenient truths: 

--The state of average black academic achievement, from kindergarten through graduate schools, is extremely discouraging -- far behind that of Asian-Americans and whites, and substantially behind that of Latinos. 

--Worse, black academic achievement in K-12 schools has not improved noticeably relative to that of whites or Asian-Americans in about 30 years, and has in some ways deteriorated, despite the growth of the black middle class. There is little reason to believe this will change in the foreseeable future. 

--For those reasons, the tacit meaning of “diversity” has morphed into “racial preferences forever” in the minds of many university officials and journalists 

These well-documented but disheartening facts are treated as taboo by academia, the media, and other establishment institutions. But the taboo is unhealthy. “Closing the racial achievement gap is the most important civil rights battle of the twenty-first century,” as the distinguished African-American Harvard sociologist Roland Fryer wrote in 2012. 

And as long as the nation shrinks from facing the racial academic gaps, they will persist, and perhaps grow larger – as did the white-black gap in 12th grade reading between 1992 and 2015 (the last year for which comparative data are available). 

The racial gaps make it imperative to find effective ways to improve the academic achievement of black (and Latino) children – and to end policies that may make hold kids back or diminish their incentives to excel academically. 

In this regard, there is evidence suggesting that far from being part of the solution, racial preferences in college admissions are part of the problem with K-12 black education. 

A few decades ago, it was widely assumed that better education, the expanding black middle class, and racial preferences themselves would bring the academic performance of black (and other minority) students closer to parity with that of whites and Asian-Americans. Racial preferences were viewed as a temporary expedient that would fade away. 

But these hopes looked forlorn as long ago as 2003, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for herself and four other justices in Grutter v. Bollinger: “[T]he number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased. ... We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further” racial diversity in selective college enrollments. 

The claimed increase in high-end achievement by minority applicants was wishful thinking, for which Justice O’Connor cited no data and not one serious study. As I wrote in 2003, at the time there was “overwhelming evidence that the racial academic gap [was] enormous and ... [had] been growing for the past 15 years [since about 1988]. 

This reversed a trend of rapid progress in closing the racial gaps from the 1950s until about 1988. But over the three decades since 1988, there has been no significant decline in the test score gap between both black and Hispanic high school seniors and their white counterparts. 

There are, of course, many brilliant black students and leaders. And most black and Latino students at Harvard and other elite schools have academic records much stronger than those of most white students at less selective colleges. But the vast majority of African-American students (and to a lesser extent Latinos) are not academically prepared to do well either in high school or in the highly selective colleges eager to recruit them. The big question is why. 

Racial academic gaps are not shrinking despite decades of racial preferences

Still more disheartening than the size of the racial gaps is the ample evidence that they have not gotten appreciably smaller in some three decades. 

“Even after decades of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago, according to a 2017 New York Times analysis. The share of black freshmen at elite schools is virtually unchanged since 1980. Black students are just 6 percent of freshmen but 15 percent of college-age Americans.”

(The paper said that blacks and Hispanics have gained more ground at less selective colleges and universities.)

Strikingly, the Times did not explicitly acknowledge or quantify the vast racial gaps in academic performance, such as the fact that the average black 12th-grader is academically at the same level as the average white eighth-grader. And not a word about the massive evidence that the home environments of so many African-American kids are not conducive to education. 

Nor did the Times attempt to explain, other than blaming unequal K-12 schools, how decades of increased public school spending and of racial preferences in college admissions could have failed so utterly to bring even relatively prosperous black students -- or their children – much closer to academic parity with whites and Asian-Americans by age 18. 

By all available measures, despite the emergence of a black middle class, the most recent data suggest that the racial academic performance gaps among 18-year-olds applying to college are as large on average as they were about three decades ago. The black-white test score gap among high school seniors in contemporary America is comparable to the gap between 13- and 17-year-olds.

Disappointing NAEP scores

The most authoritative metrics are the relative scores of racial groups on the reading and math tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress to the nation’s fourth-graders, eighth-graders, and (especially) high school seniors every two years since the early 1970s. 

At the grade 12 level, for example, in math, only 7 percent of black students scored at or above the “proficient” level in 2015, the most recent year for which the 12th grade data are available, compared with 12 percent of Latinos, 32 percent of whites, and 47 percent of Asian-Americans. And in reading, only 17 percent of black students scored at or above “proficient” in 2015, compared with 25 percent of Latinos, 46 percent of whites, and 49 percent of Asian-Americans. 

The only good news was that black and Latino students’ fourth-grade NAEP scores (mostly at age 9) improved relative to whites’ from the year 1992 (a 35-point white-black gap in math and a 32-point gap in reading) to 2017 (a 25-point gap in math and a 26-point gap in reading). 

The white-Hispanic gaps in fourth grade scores shrunk modestly from 25 points in math and 27 points in reading in 1992 to 19 points in math and 23 points in reading in 2017. 

“[A]the current rate,” wrote George W. Bohrnstedt, of the American Institutes for Research, “closing the gaps will take impossibly long. Even for Grade 4 mathematics, where progress has been greatest, it would take a century to close the gap!” 

Among the more high-achieving students in each racial group, more than 5 percent of whites scored above 700 on both the math and the reading SAT tests in 2015; about 1 percent of African-Americans and Latinos did. 

Part of the reason for these discouraging numbers is the lagging academic performance even of well-off black students at good schools. As Brookings scholars Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias wrote in 2017: “[I]t is unlikely that the racial achievement gap can be explained away by class differences across race. 

"Income alone does not explain the racial scoring gap," The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported in 2002. “Whites from families with incomes below $10,000 had a mean SAT test score that was 46 points higher than blacks whose families had incomes of between $80,000 and $100,000,” it noted. “Blacks from families with incomes of more than $100,000 had a mean SAT score that was 142 points below the mean score for whites from families at the same income level." 

All this helps explain a stunning revelation in internal Harvard data about admissions in the decade before 2012 that were unearthed by the current discrimination lawsuit: If Harvard had chosen its entering classes based on academics alone, only two-thirds of 1 percent of its students would have been African-American and fewer than 2.5 percent would have been Latino. Racial preferences account for most of the difference between those numbers and the black and Latino shares (14 percent each) of this year’s entering class. 

The reasons for blacks’ academic problems and the role of racial preferences

Of course, black and Latino students’ academic problems are attributable not to any inherent character flaws but rather to inferior education – not only in school but, even more, at home and in after-school peer groups. 

At home, due to cultural factors explored in books including Richard Sander’s and my 2012 book “Mismatch,” there is a lack of emphasis on studying and learning, along with too few books, too little reading, too much television, and too little effort to get the kids to school every day and on time. Black elementary school students in California, for example, are regularly truant nearly four times as often as their classmates. 

These problems often stem from out-of-wedlock births to teenagers unprepared for motherhood and where no father is present. These, in turn, reflect the poisonous long-term cultural effects of slavery and past discrimination; complex, cross-cutting maladies such as welfare dependency, crime, and drug abuse; and bad individual choices. At school, too many kids are trapped in failing institutions with too few effective teachers; no option for their families to choose better schools; and powerful peer pressure to avoid studying.

Our society’s failure to improve the readiness of black 12th-graders for college over the past three decades – during which large racial admissions preferences have been the rule at selective colleges – makes it pretty clear that preferences are not helping K-12 black academic performance. Some evidence suggests that preferences may be hurting.

To be sure, racial admissions preferences give a boost to some strong black college students who have shown themselves to be more than able to compete with white and Asian-American classmates, even those who were better prepared coming out of high school. But many more black students may be harmed by racial admissions preferences both before and during college. Here are four reasons why: 

First, racial admissions preferences blunt the incentives of black students to study and reinforce the pernicious stereotype that they cannot compete academically. In the words of the distinguished African-American linguist John McWhorter: 

“[A]ffirmative action . . . deprives black students of a basic incentive to reach for that highest bar. ... I can attest, for example, that in secondary school I quite deliberately refrained from working to my highest potential because I knew that I would be accepted to even top universities without doing so. Almost any black child knows from an early age that there is something called affirmative action, which means that black students are admitted to schools under lower standards than white; I was aware of this at least [from] the age of 10.” 

Second, pressure to lower K-12 academic standards to avoid disparate rates of black failure  fosters a culture of disregard for personal accountability and excuses for black failures. This is manifested by (among other things) the notion that studying is “acting white.” 

Third, the focus of almost all academics, policymakers, civil rights groups, and others on perpetuating racial preferences and lowering academic standards for black students diverts attention, reformist energy, and resources from the far more urgent task of improving their educations at home and school during their first 18 years of life – “the most important civil rights battle of the twenty-first century,” in Roland Fryer’s words. 

That would entail persuading young people to defer parenthood until they are ready; making long-acting contraceptives available to prevent unwanted births; fostering a culture of two-parent families; and motivating parents to stimulate their kids, read to them, and teach them to show up for school, do their homework, and avoid gangs and drugs. 

A culture of good parenting must be promoted by social programs that include “experimenting [with] increasing cash transfers to disadvantaged parents with young children, improving access to quality preschool programs, pursuing paid leave policies to allow for more quality parent investment during the first years of life, teaching parents the skills they need to effectively raise their children, and so on,” in the words of Reeves and Halikias. 

All that would cost a lot of money. But unlike the money that many cities, states, and courts have thrown at failing schools and that universities have spent promoting racial grievances, this money could do a lot of good. 

Improving schools requires motivating academic and civic leaders, policymakers, and voters to extend the school year and the school day; attract and keep successful teachers by paying them much more; ease out ineffective teachers; energize the charter school movement; and overcome the opposition of teachers’ unions to doing any of these things. Without such reforms, experience has shown, even vast and unprecedented new spending on schools will have little impact on academic performance. 

A push for more housing integration would also help. Scholarly work suggests that “housing integration – and, in particular, the lower poverty concentrations that blacks experience in integrated cities” -- has substantially narrowed the test-score gap in such cities, according to “Moving Toward Integration,” a 2018 book by Richard Sander, Yana Kucheva, and Jonathan Zasloff. The reason such progress has not yet had much impact on the national test-score gap, notes Sander in an email interview, is that substantial integration is still fairly rare. 

Fourth, both common sense and multiple peer-reviewed scholarly studies show that racial admissions preferences probably do even more damage to the academic achievement of African-Americans after they enter college than before. As Richard Sander and I detail in “Mismatch,” selective institutions use very large racial preferences to bring in thousands of underqualified black students without telling them that they are not close to being academically competitive with most of their classmates. 

These supposed beneficiaries of racial preferences in many cases cannot keep up with the pace of instruction; get bad grades for the first time in their lives; flee from challenging to soft, easy courses that brand them as weak students in the eyes of classmates and employers; learn less than they would if they were at colleges for which they were well qualified; abandon aspirations to become scientists, physicians, engineers, or scholars; become discouraged and lose intellectual self-confidence; self-segregate with other academically overmatched black students; and, in some cases, bitterly complain that they are being discriminated against, when the problem is precisely the opposite. 

The sad history of persistent racial academic gaps and preferences leading to mismatch suggests a bleak future. If present trends continue, most black students at almost every selective university in the country will continue to lag behind their Asian-American and white classmates academically for many more decades, if not longer.

Stuart Taylor Jr. is co-author, with Richard Sander, of “Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It” (Basic Books 2012).

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