Academic journal article The Future of Children

Can Family Socioeconomic Resources Account for Racial and Ethnic Test Score Gaps?

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Can Family Socioeconomic Resources Account for Racial and Ethnic Test Score Gaps?

Article excerpt

Summary

This article considers whether the disparate socioeconomic circumstances of families in which white, black, and Hispanic children grow up account for the racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness among American preschoolers. It first reviews why family socioeconomic resources might matter for children's school readiness. The authors concentrate on four key components of parent socioeconomic status that are particularly relevant for children's well-being--income, education, family structure, and neighborhood conditions. They survey a range of relevant policies and programs that might help to close socioeconomic gaps, for example, by increasing family incomes or maternal educational attainment, strengthening families, and improving poor neighborhoods.

Their survey of links between socioeconomic resources and test score gaps indicates that resource differences account for about half of the standard deviation--about 8 points on a test with a standard deviation of 15--of the differences. Yet, the policy implications of this are far from clear. They note that although policies are designed to improve aspects of "socioeconomic status" (for example, income, education, family structure), no policy improves "socioeconomic status" directly. Second, they caution that good policy is based on an understanding of causal relationships between family background and children outcomes, as well as cost-effectiveness.

They conclude that boosting the family incomes of preschool children may be a promising intervention to reduce racial and ethnic school readiness gaps. However, given the lack of successful large-scale interventions, the authors suggest giving only a modest role to programs that address parents' socioeconomic resources. They suggest that policies that directly target children may be the most efficient way to narrow school readiness gaps.

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National tests regularly show sizable gaps in school readiness between young white children and young black and Hispanic children in the United States. In the nation's most comprehensive assessment of school readiness among kindergartners, the 1998 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K), both black and Hispanic children scored about two-thirds of a standard deviation below whites in math (the equivalent of roughly 10 points on a test with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15) and just under half a standard deviation (7-8 points) below whites in reading (see figure 1). (1)

What might be causing such gaps? One prominent possibility is that the historical racial and ethnic inequalities in the United States have created disparate socioeconomic circumstances for the families in which white, black, and Hispanic children are reared. As graphed in figure 1, the racial gaps in family socioeconomic status (SES) of the children in the ECLS-K closely matched the gaps in test scores. (2) The average socioeconomic level of black kindergartners was more than two-thirds of a standard deviation below that of whites. Hispanic children had even lower socioeconomic standing relative to whites.

With such similar racial and ethnic gaps in test scores and SES, it is tempting to conclude that equalizing the social and economic circumstances of white, black, and Hispanic preschoolers would eliminate most if not all of the achievement gap. Whether this is likely is the subject of this article. We begin by considering theories about why family socioeconomic resources might matter for children's school readiness and reviewing studies of interventions designed to boost those resources in various ways. We then summarize results from studies that attempt to account for the racial and ethnic achievement gaps by examining differences in family socioeconomic status.

Material Hardship and Family Socioeconomic Status

Life is very different for a family with a single parent struggling to make ends meet by working at two minimum-wage jobs and a family with one highly paid wage earner and a second parent at home caring for their children. …

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