Race, Ethnicity & Educational Achievement Research Paper Starter

Race, Ethnicity & Educational Achievement

(Research Starters)

This article presents an overview of current trends in racial disparities in educational achievement and attainment. It shows that while gaps in attainment between racial groups are narrowing, whites and Asians continue to attain more education and to achieve greater educational successes than Blacks, Latino/as, and Native Americans. The consequences of the gap in terms of employment and income are presented, and current controversies about standardized testing and affirmative action are discussed in relation to educational achievement. Sociologists differ in their explanations of the racial achievement gap. Explanations including culture, class, and racial discrimination are outlined.

The disparities in educational persistence, degree attainment, and academic achievement that we observe between different racial and ethnic groups in the United States have their roots in the national historical context. Before the Civil War, most states made it illegal to educate slaves. Accordingly, few blacks living in the South could read or write. While schools were established during Reconstruction to provide basic literacy education, many sharecropping families could not spare a set of hands from the hard work of farming. The new schools serving black Southerners remained segregated and underfunded even as black children began attending them, and black teachers were not able to access teacher training or higher education. As blacks began to earn high school degrees, a segregated higher education sector developed, but it faced similar budget and training limitations. Secondary educational segregation remained legal until the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court in 1954. Today, schools in the North and in the South remain segregated to a significant degree, though this segregation is maintained by residential and income factors (de facto segregation) rather than by law (de jure segregation). Schools that predominately enroll black children tend to receive less funding because they are located in areas with lower tax revenues, and thus disparities in the educational environment continue.

These disparities begin at an early age. For instance, over 60 percent of white and Asian children participate in center-based preschool programs (publically funded programs aimed at children from low-income families), while less than half of Latino/a children do, and white children already score 26 points higher than black children on reading tests by age 9 (KewalRamini, Gilbertson, Fox, & Provasnik, 2007). Rather than declining as students spend more time in school, racial disparities grow. However, many measures of educational achievement do show a lessening of disparities over time.

Researchers who study educational achievement tend to focus on a few key indicators. First, they look at measures of persistence -- in other words, whether students stay in school or drop out. Second, they look at measures of attainment, or what degrees students earn. Finally, they look at measures of achievement, or how well students do while in school. Since all states in the United States maintain minimum drop-out ages to ensure that all or almost all students will finish at least middle school, researchers tend to consider persistence and attainment for students in high school, college, and beyond. Achievement is considered at all points in the educational system.


Latino/a students are the most likely to drop out of high school, though it is worth noting that some Latino/a drop-outs dropped out of schools in Latin America before migrating to the United States. In 2011, 14 percent of Latino/as between the ages of 16 and 24 had dropped out of high school, compared to 7 percent of blacks and 5 percent of whites. These statistics reflect a marked decline in the high school drop-out rate since 1990, when 32 percent of Latino/as, 13 percent of blacks, and 9 percent of whites between the ages of 16 and 24 had dropped out. (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).


When students graduate from high school, they reach another turning point: the chance to decide whether or not to enroll in college. The disparities between racial and ethnic groups continue when it comes to college enrollment. In 2011, the immediate college enrollment rate (defined as the percent of students receiving a high school diploma or GED and then enrolling in a two- or fouryear college the following year) was 69 percent for whites, 65 percent for blacks, and 63 percent for Latino/as. These disparities are smaller, however, than they were in 1995, when 65 percent of whites, 53 percent of blacks, and 52 percent of Latino/s enrolled immediately in college (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).

Racial and ethnic disparities grow as students move through postsecondary education. Table 1 shows what percentage of each type of secondary degree was earned by various racial and ethnic groups in the United States in 2010, and compares that statistic with each group's overall percentage of the total US population. The table shows that there is relatively little racial disparity at the associate's through master's degree levels, except among Latino/ as, who are significantly underrepresented beyond the associate's degree level. Blacks and Latino/as are both underrepresented at the doctoral level, and Asians are overrepresented by increasing degrees at each level in postsecondary education. Not shown on the chart are gender disparities within racial groups: women, especially black women and Latinas, earned more than half of all degrees conferred at every degree level in 2010. The disparity was smallest among whites earning doctorates, among whom 51.4 percent were women, and greatest among blacks earning master's degrees, among whom 71.1 percent were women (U.S. Department of Education, 2012a).

White Black Latino Asian American Indian Associate 66.3 13.7 13.5 5.3 1.2 Bachelor's 72.9 10.3 8.8 7.3 0.8 Master's 72.8 12.5 7.1 7.0 0.6 Doctoral 74.3 7.4 5.8 11.8 0.7 2010 Total Population 72.4 12.6 16.3 4.8 0.9


So far the numbers we have seen tell us only about how far students of different racial and ethnic groups advance in school, not how well they perform in it. While researchers like Steven J. Gould (1996), Claude M. Steele (1998), Christopher Jenks and Meredith Phillips (1998), and Claude Fischer (1996) have all written about the limits of using standardized tests to measure educational achievement, national data on such tests do allow us to get a picture of achievement disparities.

Researchers use a variety of standardized tests to study racial and ethnic disparities in achievement, but two of the most common are the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a multi-subject exam administered nationwide to students in different grades at school, and the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT). On the math portion of the NAEP, in 2007 white 9-yearolds scored 23 points higher than black 9-year-olds, and white 13-year-olds scored 26 points better than black 13-year-olds. Disparities between whites and Latino/as are marginally smaller, and the size of the disparities between whites and blacks and Latino/as have declined since 1978. Similar patterns are seen in the results of the NAEP reading test. NAEP scores for Asians or Native Americans are not available (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).

On the 2008-2009 SAT (which...

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