Some of the wealthiest, most-educated towns in the United States have the biggest academic-achievement gaps between white students and their peers of color. That is one of the depressing facts emerging from a wide-ranging new analysis of more than 200 million test scores of 40 million students from around the country between 2009 and 2013 by Stanford University researchers.
Comparing district-level data across states is complicated because not all students take the same tests. The researchers created a database that allows these comparisons, providing what they say is the most in-depth look at academic disparities across the country. They found wide disparities in prosperous university towns like Berkeley, California, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Evanston, Illinois—cities often heralded for driving economic development and opportunity. On average, black students score two grade levels lower than white students in their districts, while Latinos score one-and-a-half grade levels lower. The most and least socioeconomically disadvantaged districts are four grade levels apart.
The gaps emerge both between low-income and affluent children, and between white children and their peers of color. The researchers suggest that this is largely because black and Latino students are more likely to come from poor families, and to attend high-poverty schools. But even when students share similar socioeconomic backgrounds and attend similar schools, white students fare better. Although the study does not offer much to explain why this is so, Sean Reardon, a Stanford education professor and one of the leads on the study, hypothesized during a phone interview it may be because schools track white students into more-rigorous courses. This hypothesis tracks with other recent findings, such as a report from two Vanderbilt University researchers suggesting schools underestimate the abilities of black and Latino students, and a study from Johns Hopkins University that found that white teachers are less likely than black teachers to think their black students will graduate from high school.