The Achievement Gap between African-American, Hispanic, and White Students in The United States

Although schools may try to allow each student to be equal, naturally there will be differences in student achievement as simply not each student can get an A in each class. There are a number of factors, both internal and external, that may determine a student’s success in school including things from the student’s, personal motivation to his or her school’s potential resources and funding. However, despite these expected variations in success, a particularly disturbing pattern seems to be that of lower student success for minority students in comparison to their white majority counterparts. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), as of 2003 minority students accounted for 41 percent of all students in elementary and secondary schools, thus making their lack of success a serious issues, particularly among African-American and Hispanic minority students. According to the same source, as of 2010 approximately 5% of white students dropped out of high school whereas 8% of African-American students and 15.1%, an amount three times larger than that of the white students, of Hispanic students did the same. This example addresses one of the many disparities that needs to be looked at and ideally solved both through adjustments to the school districts as well as a shift in mindset of the community. Often, although few can genuinely deny the obvious achievement gap between the white majority and minorities, some incorrectly and unfairly attribute this lack of successes to innate and internal characteristics of the minority students. However, the issue does not lie within the personal traits of the minority students but in their often frequent ties to poverty, their family, as well as their struggle to assimilate and fit into American culture and its values.

As mentioned before, it is nearly impossible to deny this so-called racial achievement gap. After all, numerous studies have tried to evaluate and interpret it on either a small, school-district wide scale as well as a full-fledged national scale. The main groups that have been studied in regards to this gap are the Hispanic and African-American students. Although it is absolutely worthwhile to take a look at other minority groups, such as American Indians who also have low levels of success and no doubt experience such for many of the same reasons of the other two groups, simply for the constraints on essay length, availability of statistics, as well as prominence in society, the focus of this essay will be on the two aforementioned groups.

Hispanics, according to the NCES, are currently the second largest racial group in the United States comprising 16% of the nation’s total population and more than 20.4% of the nation’s K-12 student body (Padrón 173). Although in general test scores have been going up in the areas of reading and writing, as they have been going up for both minority groups as well as the white majority, the Hispanic students’ scores remain well below the average of their white counterparts. For example, in the results of the NAEP, a 500-point test which tries to measure student proficiency in a number of subjects for 4th and 8th grade students, the national average score in 2009 for white students was 271, which was 25 points above the average Hispanic student score of 248. The prospects also look much worse for those Hispanic students that are current ELLs (English Language Learners), or students that are in the process of mastering English and often speak another language at home. In fact, in a 2009 study of 8th grade ELLs, 72% of them scored lower than the basic level of mathematics in which was expected of them at the age.

The situation for African-American students looks quite similar. The gap in the 8th grade NAEP test results falls just one point above that of the Hispanic students at a 26 point difference (NCES). Furthermore, it is expected to take between 30-50 years to close the achievement gap between white and African-American students in reading and from 75-100 years to close the gap in science and math (Beck 638). Studies also show that black students of all ages tend to have lower GPAs and are less likely to attend selective colleges and universities in comparison to white students (Thomas 41).

Taking a look at these statistics then begs the question of why, in fact, these differences and apparent inequalities exist. The easy way out, in which some individuals argue, is that these minority students are inherently lazy, lack motivation, and are careless about their schooling and future. In other words, they adopt a “blame the victim” approach. However, those who are willing to dig more into this issue would argue that the low success rate of minorities is not an internal problem of their race, but an external problem of their situation (Beck 641). In particular, it has been found that many of these race gaps are actually rooted in issues of poverty.

Generally, research has shown that children from low-income families perform more poorly in school than students from middle to high-income families (Beck 642). Furthering this idea, as minority students are more likely to come from low-income families they are also more likely to perform more poorly in school, as the statistics above suggest they do. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average amount of individuals below the poverty per state for white people from 2007-2011 is 11.6%. For blacks, on the other hand, this number hits in at 25.8% and at 25.2% for Hispanics. Furthermore, while only 6% of white students were in high-poverty schools, 42% of African American students and 38% of Hispanic students were as well (NCES).

Therefore, even if a particular minority student is not from a family that lives below the poverty line, they are much more likely to be among students that are. Naturally, as school-aged students are so influenced by their peers, this is significant in that, even if they are not technically in poverty, they achieve in school as though they were. This is caused, in particular, by both the expectations that the students hold for themselves as well as that which their teachers offer them. Unfortunately, these expectations are frequently much lower than the student is truly capable of as these students are constantly bombarded with the idea that they are incapable by success through things such as the media and general societal impressions (Beck 640). This, therefore, puts many of these minority students into a never-ending cycle of poverty and low academic success. As the students are constantly hit with the idea that those from either their income are race are not meant to succeed, they will be unwilling to try to break past this idea. Furthermore, as the students will be surrounded by other students with similar viewpoints they will be even more discouraged to try as they have unlikely seen other students in their income situation and school actually succeed. Finally, it has been shown that growing up in poverty, often linked to a rough family life, can have negative impacts overall on a child’s mental and behavioral development thus making it more difficult for them to learn overall (NCES).

Another external influence that often affects the low success rates of minority students is that of their assimilation and acceptance in United States culture. As is expected, a person is more likely to perform well if he or she feels comfortable in a place. One study, which measure how well first and second generation immigrants adapted into American college life, suggests that the students are most content and perform the best in school if they feel they have been well adapted into American culture and, most importantly, well-accepted by the American society (Williams 309). Unfortunately, as a fair amount of racism currently exists in the United States, many of these minority groups are unable to fit in and feel like they truly belong here. Naturally, such a feeling can cause high levels of stress as well as a desire to go against the typical American and “white” education system simply to show their displeasure (Beck 638).

Also, many minority students have reported feeling torn between the demands of the white, mainstream society and the demands of their family and native culture. For many white, mainstream students the stereotypical education path is to work hard throughout secondary and high school, perform well on the ACT or SAT, get into a decent college, receive a degree, and begin life working in the “real” world (Williams 312-13). However, as a cause of many of the effects of poverty on educational success listed above, many minority students are unable to successfully complete this path and therefore find a fit into society.

Furthermore, a particular feature of the American culture that many minority students and their families find difficult to adapt to is its extreme individualization which tends to place emphasis on working toward personal success rather than success for one’s family (Williams 314). Because of this idea, many minority students feel that, by succeeding in the mainstream educational path, they are abandoning their families who may need them to stay and home and work because of their income situation. Furthermore, others may feel that seeking an education beyond that of their family and their peers might make it seem as though feel superior or that their peers and families aren’t “good enough” for them. This is particularly true in the case of elementary and secondary school children who fear being outcast by their peers for being “too smart” or a “nerd” (Numes 11). Unfortunately, this childhood fear often translates into fears of performing well in high school or seeking higher education, thus deterring many from attempting educational success and once again entering into a seemingly unbreakable cycle.

Clearly, there is a serious issue here. Unfortunately, there is no easy or quick solution to the problem. Many schools have already tried implementing programs and special classes either during school or after school to offer extra help to struggling students. Although no doubt good in intention, for many of the reasons listed above, minority students have become resilient to the education system and it is not likely that extra classes are truly going to make a difference in the long-run aside from maybe boosting a grade or two. Furthermore, the quality and quantity of these classes varies immensely from school district to school district based on funding and teacher availability. Finally, offering such classes are impractical in a school within which the majority of the students are considered at-risk minorities as one can hardly put every student in a special class. In schools where this is the case, a reform of teaching practices in the classroom setting seems necessary.

Ideally, the solution should be to try to show these students that are truly are capable of breaking the cycle and capable of achieving something. Although a difficult aim, it can be achieved by offering the students individualized attention and mentoring, showing that someone truly has taken an interest in his or her future. Unfortunately, one of the main setbacks of this is school funding. Even if a school does has sufficient funding to provide such a thing, as shown above, even if a student realizes that he or she is capable of pursuing great things, he or she may fear to do so as he may lose familial ties.

Overall, it appears that there is no one solution to solve the problem. Perhaps what is needed is a change in societal mindset in which the white majority seems to take an interest in the culture of minorities and allow them to feel welcomed and accepted. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Furthermore, even if somehow this mindset is changed, many minorities would still experience barriers to educational success caused by their poverty and familial influence. If the real root of the problem is the poverty of these minorities, then maybe the racial achievement gap cannot truly be solved until poverty has been eliminated. If so, we have a long, long way to go.

Works Cited

Beck, Audrey N. and Clara G. Muschkin. “The Enduring Impact of Race: Understanding

Disparities in Student Disciplinary Infractions and Achievement.” Sociological

Perspectives 55.4 (2012): 637-662. EBSCO Host. Web. 5 May 2013.

Michelle K. Williams, et al. “Acculturation and Well-Being Among College Students from

Immigrant Families.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 69.4 (2013): 298-318. Academic

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“National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).” National Center for Education Statistics

(NCES), a Part of the U.S. Department of Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2013.

Nunes, Fernando. “Social, Cultural and Existential Considerations in the Schooling Choices

of Working-Class, Immigrant Youth: One Minority Youth’s Story.” Relational Child &

            Youth Care Practice 24.4 (2011): 5-20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 May 2013.

Thomas, Kevin J.A. “Race and School Enrollment Among the Children of African Immigrants

in the United States.” International Migration Review 46.1 (2013): 37-60. Academic

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“United States Census Bureau.” U.S. Department of Commerce. N.p., 13 February 2013. Web.

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Yolanda N. Padrón, et al. “Classroom Instruction and the Mathematics Achievement of

Non-English Learners and English Learners.” Journal of Educational Research 106.3 (2013): 173-182. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 May 2013.

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