NYU Sociologists Map Trajectory for Gap in Black and White Students' Test Scores to Early Home Environment


New York University sociologists have mapped out the trajectory for the long-standing gap between black and white students’ test scores. Their findings, which appear in the journal Social Science Research, show that the early childhood home environment accounts for much of this gap that exists before starting school and in early school years-and which becomes more pronounced in later years. The researchers found that the impact of the home environment on test scores diminishes after grammar school.

Some of the risk factors for low-achievement scores that are part of the early childhood home environment are the following: birth to a teenage mother, having a low birth weight, having a mother with low cognitive skills, and low family income in early childhood.

“If we take these factors as important markers of mother’s early economic disadvantage and health risk behaviors, then our results suggest that early environments, including prenatal environments, do matter and that racial achievement gaps may be preventable,” wrote the study’s authors, Wei-Jun Jean Yeung, a professor of sociology at NYU, and Kathryn M. Pfeiffer, a researcher at Research Works, Inc.

“Effective interventions must start before a child is born,” the researchers urged. “Policy efforts to reduce early economic hardships for mothers, including direct efforts to reduce the risk of teenage childbearing, prevent low birth weight babies, provide quality prenatal care, and reduce high-school dropout rates are promising measures for reducing the black-white test score gap.”

They also emphasized the importance of early childhood programs that encourage verbal conversation, reading, and counting at home and encouraged the expansion of Early Head Start and prekindergarten programs that have an emphasis on parental involvement.

“Such programs will have more significant and long-term payoffs than programs on later-school years,” Yeung and Pfeiffer maintained.

The study used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), which is supported primarily by the National Science Foundation, and its two waves of Child Development Supplements (CDS). The PSID is a longitudinal study-the same families are assessed repeatedly over multiple years-that began in 1968 with a nationally representative sample of about 5,000 American families. The CDS, conducted in 1997 and again in 2003, collects information on child development and family dynamics, including parent-child relationships, home environment, indicators of children’s health, cognitive achievement, social-emotional development, and time use. It employs testing data from the applied problems (AP) and letter-word (LW) tests that assess early math and verbal skills.

Consistent with previous studies, the researchers found large black-white test score differences among children of all ages. Even before children start formal schooling, black children score about 10 percent and 7 percent lower than whites on applied problem and letter-word tests, suggesting that schools do not create the entire racial achievement gaps. Moreover, the gaps in early cognitive skills between black and white children were highly predictive of gaps at later ages, setting off a trajectory of cumulative disadvantage for black children over time.

In the Social Science Research study, Yeung and Pfeiffer sought to determine if children’s home environments explained differences in test scores between the two racial groups. According to the PSID data, about 40 percent of white children have a maternal grandparent who had some college education while fewer than 15 percent of black children have a grandparent with a similar educational attainment. In addition, at the time of the child’s birth, a larger proportion of 500

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