"Demographics, Diversity and K-12 Accountability: The Challenge of Closing the Achievement Gap," with Thomas J. Lasley, II, Education and Urban Society, Volume 34, Number 4, Sage Publication, Thousand Oaks, California, August, 2002.


by William L. Bainbridge and Thomas J. Lasley, II


One of the greatest challenges facing educators today is the achievement gap between European American (white) children and African~American or Hispanic-American students. More than ever, educators are expected to understand demographics, diversity and accountability.

In this age of accountability, schools are frequently compared with other schools in order to provide a handy gauge for measuring performance. Many feel such comparisons are essential to determine how students are doing compared with their peers at other schools. But often the demographic characteristics used to develop similar school or school system groups don't reflect the true picture of the students in any given school community. For example, size and type (urban, rural, suburban) of school system, two frequently used features, tell us very little about the kinds of students we actually find in the classrooms.

Performance is often compared among types of students as well. Most school systems track performance on achievement tests by race (African American, Hispanic American, Native American, Asian American and "white") in order to assess how different groups of students compare to one another. Gender is also frequently mentioned as a measuring stick. As school leaders are well aware, significant differences do appear between groups of students of different races, and to a lesser extent, between gender groups. It is well established that African American nationwide generally perform below their white peers on standard achievement measures.1 (See also Figure 1.) The news media and academic press continue to report about the black-white test score gap and lags in minority achievement. The mistaken impression almost always left by national reports and the polemics of educational reformers is that gaps in performance are related to skin color.2 No single cause for these performance disparities has been determined, but no legitimate concrete evidence has ever been found that characteristics such as race affect students' cognitive ability.3 In fact, many studies of mixed-race children and children adopted by parents of differing races suggest that racial differences in test performance are mostly perhaps entirely environmental.4

Some evidence suggests, in fact, that the very act of focusing on race influences students' ability to perform at their best. Compelling research from Stanford University shows that just knowing poor performance on test could be used to confirm the lower ability of one group compared to another negatively affects performance.5 This somewhat controversial phenomenon is referred to as the "stereotype threat." When black and white students were told they were being tested on their academic abilities, blacks did worse than whites. But when a control group was told the tests didn't matter, and were just a laboratory tool, the performance difference was eliminated.

The same findings apply to gender and other races. When women were told their performance was being compared to men's, women's scores went down. When white males were told their performance was being compared with that of Asian students', the white students' scores decreased. Take away the "threat" of comparison, and all groups of students tend to perform at about the same levels, regardless of race or gender.

Disaggregating test scores by race may also have another unintended effect: increasing the inequality in educational content and quality between more affluent, white schools and less affluent, minority schools.6 Because teachers are often instructed to "bring up" scores for minority students, who also often happen to be poorer students; they set aside regular curriculum to spend days, even weeks, of class time "teaching to the test." Scores may go up for these students, but they have irrevocably lost crucial time needed for higher quality, higher level learning. This keeps the actual content knowledge of these groups of students below that of students who are not targeted for extra drill in test-taking skills. In other words, the attention paid to improving the test scores of minority students may actually reduce their overall performance and knowledge over time. Yet we know not all students perform at the same levels, and we still see measurable differences between blacks and whites. What, if not race, accounts for the differences? The answers are complex and involve a number of social, familial, and economic factors.

Far more relevant than race or gender in academic achievement are the education levels of students' parents (as well as other adults) and family socioeconomic status-see, for example, Table 1. Professionals have known for years that the greatest predictor of a child's success in school is the education level of the parents, particularly the mother. Research has shown that a relationship exists between school system effectiveness, the socioeconomic status of families in the community, and the educational level of parents. Recent studies have suggested that early childhood experiences affect learning and development, with children from impoverished environments generally achieving at lower levels than those from more enriching situations.7

What emerges from the literature is a clear picture suggesting that race matters, but that race does not dictate or determine student performance. In the words of Amitai Etzioni: "Race does not determine a person's response [or performance] and often, on all important matters, Americans of different social backgrounds share many convictions, hopes and goods, even in recent years as we see the beginning of the decline of the white majority. Moreover, each racial group is far from homogeneous in itself. Differences within each group abound."8

The reality of those differences is what makes educational practice so complex. Indeed, a review of history illuminates the complex relationship between race, poverty and education. Just a few generations ago, European-Americans operated plantations via the abomination of slavery. Laws forbade educating slaves. When the slaves were emancipated in 1865, no GI Bill of Rights or Marshall Plan assisted their assimilation into the mainstream culture or workforce. 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 has continued to grow, with the greatest adverse impacts on nonwhites. For example, African Americans are three times more likely than whites to come from poor families.9

The educational plight of the many non-English-speaking immigrants now entering the United States, of whatever ethnic group, is not much different. Their parents often have little formal education and lack the resources to provide academic stimulation and appropriate diet at home. Hispanic children, for example, are two times as likely to live in poverty than "white" children.10 Those with educated parents tend to do much better on standardized tests.

Living in poverty usually means families are less able to afford good health care, nutritious food, or enriching cultural or educational experiences for their children.

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.11 The research of Huttenlocher and his colleagues over the past two decades proved that most of the brain is "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.

Although humans are born with very similar ranges of intelligence, the different nurturing processes that take place in the formative years have a tremendous impact on a child's ability to learn.12

Environmental factors continue to have a major impact on student achievement. Joseph Murphy at The Ohio State University and his colleagues document a body of findings in the declining social welfare of children and their families: "These data reveal a society populated increasingly by groups of citizens that historically have not fared well in this nation, especially ethnic minorities and citizens for whom English is a second language. Concomitantly, the percentage of youngsters affected by the ills of the world in which they live-for example, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, crime, drug addiction, malnutrition and poor physical health-is increasing."13

It is that increase in differences between and among the social backgrounds of America's African-American, Hispanic and Euro-American children that is particularly disturbing If it is true that environmental factors are a salient cause for student performance differences, that fact places a special burden on all who educate poor children regardless of context. Meredith Phillips and colleagues write: "Our results imply that we could eliminate at least half, and probably more, of the black-white test score gaps at the end of the twelfth grade by eliminating the differences that exist before children enter first grade."14

Unfortunately, far too many educational reformers and critics fend to disdain the reality of environmental factors. They argue that school "treatment" effects can override the home environment. Certainly, some truth exists to support this statement. Teachers do make a difference. But the real problem emerges when society unfairly expect teachers to accomplish the same academic growth with students who do not have requisite social and intellectual capital when they enter school as they do with those who do possess such personal resources.

Most studies that compare school districts unfairly use data such as total corporate and individual tax base per pupil, or, as noted earlier, size and type of school, all factors which have virtually no relationship to student learning outcomes. The fact is students from high socioeconomic homes have great advantages in doing schoolwork and are more likely to have access to computers and other learning devices in their many hours away from school.

Some surprising findings have indicated that the effects of poverty extend beyond individual families.15 In schools with 25 percent of the student body living in poverty, all students, whether poor, affluent or in between, tend to do less well than students from schools in affluent communities. Furthermore, even after a family has achieved higher income levels, the effects of poverty can linger. If two families have the same income levels, children from the family that became affluent more recently may lag behind children from the family that has been affluent longer.16

While there are many examples of highly successful (resilient) people who grew up in poverty and found mental stimulation and protein by good fortune, 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.17

What can we learn from this analysis that will help us be more effective leaders in narrowing academic achievement gaps and establishing reasonable goals?


School characteristics such as building size, type (rural, urban, suburban), and tax base per pupil have been shown to have little or no relationship to the performance of individual students. Variables such as parent education level, quality of diet, and access to stimulating environments are related directly to the ability of individual students to learn. Other factors used to compare students, such as race and gender have no real influence over cognitive ability or academic performance. Social and economic factors such as education and levels and families living in poverty have been shown to have greater influence than any other characteristics on how well students do in school.

Educators and educational reformers who focus on systemic reform or teacher quality without giving some attention to social environmental factors will continue to be frustrated by more failure than success. True, individual pockets of success will occur for a variety of complex reasons. Equally true, for schools to be broadly successful, society must continue to address social and economic justice issues.


As our society has grown, the diversity in ethnic and cultural backgrounds and traditions in our schools has also grown. Our sensitivity to the needs of diverse groups of students is required in order for us to be effective leaders and educators. Research has shown clearly, however, that focusing only on the characteristics that make students superficially different from one another is not only inaccurate, but may in fact hinder students' ability to achieve at their highest levels.18 Continuing to track performance based on race may actually contribute to the performance gap between African Americans and whites. It is more accurate and beneficial to ensure that students who are the poorest and most educationally disadvantaged receive the greatest attention and resources. Understanding the interrelationship between poverty, family education levels, race and achievement can help school leaders establish effective, equitable plans for distributing resources and for even organizing school environments. Indeed, Ferguson notes that the fit between home and school environments is important for addressing student diversity. He writes:

A few researchers have identified changes in classroom management for early grades which, compared to standard practices, can help both black and white children, but appear to benefit black children from households of lower socioeconomic status the most.19


Since accountability often depends on comparison, it would seem wise to base comparisons on factors that really matter. Schools should be compared on an "apples-to-apples" basis, using community poverty and adult education levels as primary characteristics. With this kind of assessment, reasonable, attainable goals can be established, and more accurate gains in achievement can be measured and celebrated based on expected achievement levels for similar groups of students. Research shows the gaps in achievement levels can be narrowed and learning can be improved for all groups of students-the true goal of any accountability program. 20

M. Donald Thomas initiated the Audit of Educational Effectiveness while he was Deputy State Superintendent for Accountability in South Carolina during the administration of then-Governor Richard Riley. Thomas explained that schools should be compared with other schools that were mean-matched in terms of socioeconomic status. The Audit has been conducted to improve student achievement through demographic group-based benchmarking accountability systems. In hundreds of US school systems, results of the Audit reveal a high correlation between student success on state- administered examinations and students' parents' education level. Future scholarly research on this subject should use parent education level and poverty rates as the appropriate yardsticks.21


The answers to closing the achievement gap will be neither simple nor inexpensive. Since the Brown decision, society has sought to create an educational system that met all students' needs yet the system created assumed that the students who came to school entered with essentially the same personal characteristics though everyone knew this simply was not true, the cost to society was too great to acknowledge it as an educational reality. The consequence: Some students, succeeded, some failed and many withdrew or dropped out. Closing the achievement gap will require new approaches to understanding demographics, diversity and accountability. It will also require more commitment on the part of society to find ways of ensuring that those who start school possess enough advantages to be advantaged by education and not so many disadvantages that make the efforts of even the best educators ineffective.

1 Mana Singham, "The Canary in the Mine: The Achievement Gap between Black and White Students," Phi Delta Kappan, September 1998, pp. 8-15.

2 William L. Bainbridge, "Is the Test Score Gap Really Color Based?" The School Administrator, August 2000, p. 50.

3 See Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man, (New York: Norton, 1981); and R. C. Lewenton, Steven Rose and Leon J. Kanin, Not in Our Genes ( New York: Pantheon, 1984).

4 Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, "The Black-White Test Score Gap: Why It Persists and What Can Be Done," Education Week, 30 September 1998, pp. 42, 32.

5 Claude M. Steele, "Race and the Schooling of Black Americans," Atlantic, April 1992, pp. 68-78; Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson, "Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans," Journal of Personality',and Social Psychology, vol. 69, 1995, pp. 797- 811; and David J. Lewin, "Subtle Clues Elicit Stereotypes' Impact on Black Students," Journal of NIH Research, November 1995, pp. 24-26.

6 Linda M. McNeil, "Creating New Inequalities: Contradictions of Reform, Phi Delta Kappan, June 2000, pp. 729-734.

7 Peter R. Huttenlocher and Arun S. Dabholkar, "Regional Differences in Synaptogenesis in Human Cerebral Cortex," The Journal of Comparative Neurology, vol. 387, 1997, pp. 167-178.

8 Amitai Etzioni, "The Monochrome Society," Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2001, pp. 15-16.

9 Debra Viadero, "Lags in Minority Achievement Defy Tradintionl Explanations," Education Week, 28 March 2000, pp.1.

10 Viadero, p. 18.

11 Huttenlocher and Dabholkar, PP. 167-178.

12 John T. Breuer, "Neural Connections-Some You Use, Some You Lose," Phi Delta Kappan, December 1999, pp. 264-277; "A Child Is Never Too Young to Learn Mozart," The Salt Lake Tribue, 27 February, p. A-12.

13 Joseph Murphy and Patrick B. Forsyth, Educational Administration: A Decade of Reform, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press 1999 p.8.

14 Meredith Phillips, James Crouse, John Ralph, "Does the Black-White Test Score Gap Widen After Children Enter School?" In Christopher Jencks & Meredith Phillips (eds.), The Black-White Test Score Gap, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1998, p. 275.

15 Viadero, pp. 18-19.

16 Viadero, p. 19.

17 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) - US Department of Education, "Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99.

18 Steel and Aronson, "Sterotype Threat."

19 Ronald F. Ferguson, "Can Schools Narrow The Black-White Test Score Gap?" In Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips (eds), The Black- White Test Score Gap, pp. 318-374, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1998,p. 367.

20 Singham, pp. 11-15.

21 M. Donald Thomas, "Acquiring Essential Data on Schools," The Effective School Report, August 1992.

William L. Bainbridge is President of SchoolMatch, the Columbus, Ohio based educational research firm and Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton. Thomas J. Lasley, II is Dean of the school of Education & Allied Professions and Joseph Panzer Professor Education at the University of Dayton.


Table 1
SAT Scores by Family Income
1998 College Bound Seniors

___Family Income Verbal Math Total___

<$10,000/year 427 446 873
$10,000 - $20,000/year 451 463 914
$20,000 - $30,000/year 477 482 959
$30,000 - $40,000/year 495 497 992
$40,000 - $50,000/year 506 509 1015
$50,000 - $60,000/year 514 518 1032
$60,000 - $70,000/year 521 525 1046
$70,000 - $80,000/year 527 532 1059
$80,000 - $100,000/year 539 546 1085
$100,000 559 572 1131

Source News from The College Board, September 1, 1998