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 black mothers were under the age of 20 (14 percent vs. 4 percent) or were receiving public assistance (31 percent vs. 5 percent) than white mothers. Moreover, about a third of the black children (from birth to age 5), compared to 3 percent of white children, had a family income lower than $15,000. Average parental education for black children is almost two years lower than mean parental education for their white counterparts. Mothers of white children score significantly higher than those of black children on the verbal assessment. White children also enjoy higher income and family head occupational prestige levels compared to black children.

After taking these differences into account, Yeung and Pfeiffer found large reductions in the gaps in test scores between black and white students up to the sixth grade.

For instance, among children who began preschool in 1997, the racial gap in Applied Problems scores is reduced by 30 percent when grandparents’ education and the characteristics of the mother and the child at the time of birth are held constant. When parental socioeconomic status and other family characteristics are also considered, the remaining gap in AP scores fell by an additional one-third. Similar reductions are found for these same children when they reached grammar school. For the children who were in grades 4-6 in 2003, holding grandparents’ education and characteristics of the mother and child at the time of child’s birth constant reduces the gap in LW scores by 70 percent.

“Our results underscore the key role of early home environment and the intergenerational roots of the persistent black-white achievement gap,” the researchers concluded.

Beyond the elementary school years, however, their results showed that early home environment could no longer account for all the achievement gaps between black and white students. The authors speculate that these factors include the quality of schools and neighborhood and peer influence.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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