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Generational Change: Closing the Test Score Gap

reviewed by Jaekyung Lee - October 05, 2006

coverTitle: Generational Change: Closing the Test Score Gap
Author(s): Paul E. Peterson
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742546098 , Pages: 224, Year: 2006
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This edited book contains eight chapters with recommendations of a broad range of possible policies to address academic achievement gaps among racial groups in schools (the Black-White gap in particular). While some chapters by political scientists and policy analysts capitalize on reviews of prior research on this topic, others by economists tend to rely more heavily on their own empirical research evidence based on analyses of large-scale national data sets including National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS). The book could have benefited from utilizing more balanced views on the issues and mixed methods for triangulation and enrichment of research evidence. Despite some ideological biases and methodological limitations, the book makes a timely contribution to current policy discussion by addressing three related questions: (1) How large and significant are the achievement gaps? (problems), (2) Where do the gaps come from? (causes), and (3) What interventions are needed to close the gaps? (solutions). Research findings and outstanding issues for each question are reviewed below.

1. Problems

The achievement gap constitutes an important barometer in educational and social progress toward equity. This topic is critical at a time when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and states’ school accountability policies are concerned with closing achievement gaps among different groups of students. On one hand, we have to acknowledge that there is no magic bullet for closing the achievement gap; we need to develop realistic expectations about future progress. Reviews of studies using national data sets provide a consistent message that the achievement gap for poor and minority children starts before they even enter schools. In their chapter, Fryer and Levitt, using ECLS-K data, show that the initial Black-White gap actually widens after children enter school.

On the other hand, we should continuously strive to inform educational policy for closing achievement gaps. Given stark realities and lofty imperatives, this book starts with the premise that the Black-White test score gap should be closed one generation from now. It draws the premise from the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger University of Michigan Law School affirmative action case in which Judge O’Connor declared that “we expect that twenty-five years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” While this case does not apply directly to K-12 yet (and the timeline of one generation is less pressing than the year 2014 deadline of 100 percent proficiency set by NCLB), it certainly has implications for national progress toward racial equity in education.

While the Black-White and Hispanic-White mathematics achievement gaps have narrowed significantly over the past three decades, there was some setback in national progress during the past decade, and achievement gaps remain substantially large (Lee, 2002). While Peterson and Neal also report the same finding in their chapters, their diagnoses portend a more rosy future. Peterson, the editor of this book, points out that the task of closing the gap could have been accomplished without the setback, and that past enormous gains can be repeated. The optimism of closing the gap is echoed by Neal in Chapter 2 who, based on the theory of intergenerational transfer of human capital, predicts that “the experience of the past decade is the exception and not the rule.” Fryer and Levitt claim that there were real gains by recent black young children cohort groups.

2. Causes

Peterson attributes the past progress of young black students primarily to the growing educational capacities of their families and the rise and fall of adolescent test scores to broader social and cultural changes in society. He poses a question: Why did the test gap close most rapidly in the 1980s when there was setback or stagnation at best in progress toward equal opportunity, whereas the gap widened in the 1990s when there was progress in equal opportunities? To address this statement, two things must be kept in mind. First of all, social and educational changes are not coincidental with achievement trends due to time lag; it may take several years for social policy changes to impact achievement. Also, it is necessary to realize that the test score achievement of high school students (17-year-olds) as reported in the mid-1980s reflects the cumulative impact of schooling that started way back in the 1970s.

The foundation for social and educational progress in closing the gap was built in the 1960s and 70s, when education and social policies worked to narrow the achievement gap by guaranteeing a minimally adequate level of achievement for minorities through compensatory education, minimum competency testing, school desegregation, equalization of school funding, the War on Poverty, and affirmative action. The same logic applies to the setback in the 1990s. Some of the setback reflects that what happened in the 80s has lagged effects. As the goal shifted to closing the gap at more advanced knowledge and at a higher-order skills level, improvement of social and educational conditions for minority students did not catch up with the pace (Lee, 2002).

Neal suggests that the racial gap has closed on standard measures of school quality such as term length, pupil-teacher ratios, and teachers with advanced degrees. However, this analysis ignores curricular and instructional changes during the past two decades when the level of performance standards shifted from minimum competency to proficiency and the achievement gap widened at the higher-order thinking level.  Despite the apparent progress in readily available measures of school quality, disparities remain in less observable but more crucial measures of quality such as teacher knowledge and skills (e.g., in-field teaching). The funding gap also remains when we consider the fact that it costs more to raise the achievement of socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

Prior research shows no solid evidence to support genetic explanations for these racial gap trends. Rather, the findings imply relatively greater influences of environmental factors, including both home and schooling factors. Although researchers disagree on the best measure of school quality, remarkably consistent patterns suggest that schools matter in reducing achievement gaps. Educational inequity in schools mirrors social inequity, but at the same time, underlies other inequities in a larger society. There is no single educational policy that can address racial and social inequalities in academic achievement. We need to address a broader range of educational inequity in multiple domains which involve both schools and social institutions simultaneously.

Conventional measures of home and schooling environment contribute to explaining part, but not all, of racial achievement gaps. However, Fryer and Levitt demonstrate that the Black-White test score gap for kindergarteners can be eliminated after controlling for a set of family conditions. They stress that this finding diverges from earlier studies showing that a substantial racial gap persists even after controlling for a wide range of covariates including both family and school characteristics. They also note that blacks were losing ground during the school year rather than in summer. Although they speculate that it is due to lower quality schools that black students attend, they recognize that we need more detailed data on schooling conditions to test the hypothesis.

3. Solutions

While the overall tone of this book is highly conservative with its policy recommendations that align with those of the current administration, chapters draw conclusions from reviews of empirical studies on specific educational policies: preschool programs in Haskins’ chapter, school desegregation in Armor’s chapter, school choice in Wolf’s chapter, and school accountability in Hanushek and Rayomon’s chapter. They suggest that there is often mixed and inconclusive evidence of policy/program impacts, and that educational policy alone cannot help close the gap in one generation. Hanushek and Raymond report highly positive results in favor of high-stakes testing policies, while they also caution against an uneven effect for racial subgroup; that is, a widening of the Black-White gap. Some authors pinpoint limitations and problems with the current system. NCLB targets schools for accountability. Peterson claims that it should involve student accountability to be successful. Neal points out the risk of negative consequences that high-stakes testing involves (such as distorting teacher effort away from activities that have long-term value for students, but low returns on the standardized assessment). This concern resonates with many previous studies of high-stakes testing.

Surprisingly, the book ends up giving the impression that what matters is politics (or political will) rather than new resources or knowledge. Wolf points out that political decisions bound and regulate market arrangements as well as government operations (e.g., the authorization of charter schools). Peterson concludes that promising policies (educationally focused preschooling, school desegregation, student accountability, and parental choice) have encountered strong resistance from vested interests. Finn recommends what he believes to be a politically and programmatically successful approach; that is, a broad-based strategy for boosting achievement across society.

In describing the current state as “many causes, no easy solutions,” Finn makes it clear in his chapter that the goal is two-fold: not simply narrowing the gap, but also raising the overall level of achievement. This adds a new dimension of gap relative to adequate performance, thereby removing the possibility of lowering the achievement of the higher performing group in order to close the relative gap. However, the nation is far short of accomplishing the dual mission of academic excellence and equity, and there is no solid evidence yet from this book (or others) showing that a combination of test-driven accountability and school choice policies under NCLB helps advance those two goals together.

Major limitations of the book include its exclusive focus on the White-Black achievement gap as well as its heavy reliance on quantitative studies for evidence. Although the quality of data on other racial and ethnic groups including Hispanics and Asians is of concern, they are the fastest growing groups that deserve more attention in research. Further research is needed to examine whether and how these different racial and ethnic groups of students benefit equally from investment in home vs. school resources. Further research is needed to develop new measures of racial inequity in schools that adopt new academic standards and to investigate long-term, joint influences of broader educational and social policy changes on inequity beyond the test score gap. This line of research should help us further understand the nature and degree of the achievement gap, identify the sources of achievement gaps, and design educational interventions that help narrow the gaps.


Lee, J. (2002). Racial and ethnic achievement gap trends: Reversing the progress toward equity? Educational Researcher, 31, 3-12.

Grutter v. Bollinger et al., 539 U.S. 31 (2003).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 05, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12774, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 6:49:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Jaekyung Lee
    State University of New York at Buffalo
    E-mail Author
    JAEKYUNG LEE is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at SUNY at Buffalo. His research focuses on educational accountability and equity. His most recent report on this topic is Lee, J. (2006). Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of NCLB on the Gaps: An In-depth Look into National and State Reading and Math Outcome Trends. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.
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