"Is the Test Score Gap Really Color-Based?" By William L. Bainbridge. School Administrator. August 2000.


by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.

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 color-related. Such conclusions make us all victims of self-perpetuating prejudice. Tucked somewhere near the end of many of these reports a small statement sometimes appears suggesting 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. In an era when school administrators awake a half hour early to see how their district fared in the latest tests of accountability, 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 in most Southern jurisdictions. When the slaves were "freed," there was no GI Bill or Marshall Plan to assist 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 or even blue-collar foremen.

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 steadily growing with a greater impact on people of color than on the "majority."

The educational plight of the many non-English speaking immigrants currently 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 ability to learn in school is largely a function early in life of the formation of synaptic contacts in the human cerebral cortex. Medical research indicates various parts of the brain are "wired" in stages following birth. The visual cortex, for example, begins its wiring process early in life and needs little stimulation other than the normal environment of objects and people in motion. Sound is processed through the auditory cortex and can impact "brain-wiring" until about age 12. Noted University of Chicago neurologist Peter R. Huttenlocher, MD, indicates he can usually tell, for example, when someone came to the USA. "If you come after the age of 15 or 16, you will learn English with an accent. Before that, you can learn a foreign language accent free." Huttenlocher’s research over the course of the last two decades has proven that the human brain gets built after birth. His findings emphasize the importance of mental stimulation in the home environment and the positive impact of a high protein diet. The fact is that 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, Dr. M. Donald Thomas, highly respected former Superintendent of Schools in Salt Lake City UT and education advisor to several governors, was making a presentation to the joint session of the South Carolina legislature. He explained to the policy-makers that school district goals should be based on the performance of "mean-matched" schools.

When asked to define the term, "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. Thomas points out that although human beings are born with very similar ranges of intelligence, the different nurturing process that takes place in the formative years greatly impacts a child’s ability to learn.

The point of all this 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, which they have received 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 has been shown to have virtually no relationship to student learning outcomes. The fact is that students from high socio-economic 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 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. Hopefully, future research on this subject will use the right yardstick.

Dr. Bainbridge is president of SchoolMatch, a national research firm located in Columbus OH, assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.