Closing the achievement gap between black and white students has been one of our nation’s overarching goals for half a century. We are failing miserably.

As researchers know all too well, there is still a gulf of more than 200 points between the SAT scores of white and black students, and black children trail their white peers by significant margins on every subject tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Many people are likewise aware that Michigan performs even worse in this regard. Across grades and subjects, Michigan’s racial achievement gap on the NAEP is four to nine points larger than the gap nationwide.[1]

But there is one aspect of the achievement gap that is almost universally unknown: how it differs between public and private schools.

To document this disparity, I used a U.S. Department of Education database to compute the average NAEP test score differences between black and white students in both public and private schools. The results appear in Table 1.

Table 1. White/Black NAEP Achievement Differences
for Public and Private Schools[2]

NAEP Test Subject

Data Year

4th Grade Gap (Public)

4th Grade Gap (Private)

12th Grade Gap (Public)

12th Grade Gap (Private)

Percent Difference* Between the 4th and 12th Grade Gaps (Public)

Percent Difference* Between the 4th and 12th Grade Gaps (Private)

Reading

2002

29

27

25

14

-13.8

-48.1

Writing

2002

20

22

23

18

15.0

-18.2

Math

2000

30

28

33

23

10.0

-17.9

Science

2001

35

27

31

20

-11.4

-25.9


Data Source: NAEP Data Tool, NCES website: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/
*Negative numbers indicate a 12th grade black/white score gap that is smaller than its corresponding 4th grade gap.

As the table shows, there is a sizeable achievement gap between black and white fourth-graders in both public and private schools. It is also clear that the private-sector racial achievement gap is narrower at the 12th grade than at the 4th grade in all of the core NAEP subjects. Public schools actually see a larger race gap in both writing and mathematics at the 12th grade than at the fourth.

Averaged across subjects, the public school racial achievement gap is virtually unchanged between fourth and 12th grades. By contrast, the gap in private schools is an average of 27.5 percentage points smaller at the 12th grade than at the fourth.

Note that the achievement gap does not close faster in private schools because white private school students lose ground with respect to white public school students as they move to higher grades. Rather, the gap closes because black private school students have learned at a substantially higher rate than black public school students.[3]

Still, the comparison in the table above is arguably unfair — to the private schools.

To see why, consider the research on dropout rates. For instance, economist Derek Neal has found that black students attending urban private schools are far more likely to complete high school, gain admission to college and complete college than similar students in urban public schools.[4] In a study comparing Milwaukee public school graduation rates with those of low-income participants in the city’s private-school voucher program, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jay Greene found that the voucher students were more than one-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate as the public school students. More remarkable still, Greene found this to be true even when he compared the voucher students to those attending Milwaukee’s elite group of academically selective public schools.

This higher graduation rate in private schools is not only a boon in itself; it casts the private-sector gap reductions in an even more favorable light. Dropouts tend to be poor performers academically, so when they leave the test-taking population, the average of the remaining students usually goes up. This dynamic should generally improve the test scores of public high school seniors, yet public schools have a worse impact on the test score gap.

So, will the NAACP and other groups avowedly committed to reducing the racial achievement gap act on these findings? Will they compete with one another to discover the best way of bringing nongovernment schooling within reach of all children?

The answer, obviously, is no.

Why?

Because while these groups are committed, on some level, to the aims they profess, they are handcuffed by a self-destructive political ideology. Yes, they will say, we should do everything we can to close the racial achievement gap, as long as our efforts stay comfortably within the confines of a state-run education monopoly.

Given the choice between actually narrowing the racial achievement gap and remaining ideologically pure, they will chose ideological purity.

Sooner or later, this position must surely crumble under the weight of its own immorality.


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Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.


[1] All data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Web site (http://nces.ed.gov/). Consider, for example:
4th Grade Math 2003: Michigan black/white gap: 35 points; U.S. black/white gap: 27 points.
8th Grade Math 2003. Michigan black/white gap: 41 points; U.S. black/white gap: 35 points.
4th Grade Reading 2003. Michigan black/white gap: 39 points; U.S. black/white gap: 30 points.
8th Grade Reading 2003. Michigan black/white gap: 30 points; U.S. black/white gap: 26 points.
4th Grade Science 2000. Michigan black/white gap: 43 points; U.S. black/white gap: 35 points.
8th Grade Science 2000. Michigan black/white gap: 44 points; U.S. black/white gap: 39 points.

[2] The ideal comparison of this sort would be to follow a single group of black and white students through the grades, noting their achievement gap each time they were tested. That is unfortunately not possible using NAEP data because the sample of students to whom the test is administered differs from one year to the next. In the absence of that ideal data series, I have opted to examine scores across grades in a single year (whichever year happens to be the most recent for which both fourth- and 12th-grade results are available for the given subject).

[3] Some might suggest that blacks who attend private schools are somehow inherently "better students" than blacks who attend public schools, and that this is why the racial gap decreases more quickly in private schools. This hypothesis isn’t promising, however.

It’s true that black students who attend private schools score higher on the NAEP at both the fourth- and 12th-grade levels than black students who attend public schools. But whatever inherent advantages black private school students may have over black public school students (such as stronger families), white private school students usually have in comparison to white public school students. In fact, white students, like black students, score higher in private schools than in public schools at both grade levels. Thus, even if black students in private schools are starting from a higher base, they are also forced to reach a higher standard when they try to make gains against their white classmates.

[4] Derek Neal, "The Effects of Catholic Secondary Schooling on Educational Achievement," Journal of Labor Economics, vol. 15, no. 1 (1997), pp. 98-123.