Improvements in Academic Achievement among African American Students over Time: National Data and an Urban Case Study

By Stringfield, Sam | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Improvements in Academic Achievement among African American Students over Time: National Data and an Urban Case Study


Stringfield, Sam, The Journal of Negro Education


An underlying assumption made in this article by Stringfield is that tests and test scores themselves are neither "good" nor "bad." Rather, test data can either be productively or harmfully used by individuals and groups with varying social agendas. While there exist scattered examples of misuses of test score data, in this article the author focuses on three examples of test score uses that have largely resulted in what have been a net public good. The examples used have been selected from the most recent 40-year period.

In a volume often regarded as a landmark, Jencks and Phillips (1998) concluded that eliminating the Black-White academic achievement gap in school is by far the most viable route toward addressing issues ranging from the need for affirmative action policies in colleges and jobs, to the gap in wages, and perhaps even addressing community housing segregation. While one could disagree with individual parts of those assertions, one must assume that the stakes in our collective efforts to achieve educational equity for all Americans are extremely high. In an era when "what gets measured thatters," the measurement of academic progress for African Americans is necessarily a matter of high relevance for us all.

The history of education of persons of African descent in the United States has been so well documented as to be too broad for one article or over half a century of this celebrated journal. One subset of that history, analyses of the relationship between standardized testing and the education of African Americans, together with debates about the multiple meanings of the stuthes that comprise that history, would fill a library. I could not-and do not propose to-review that large history in this article. Rather, I refer interested readers to the proud history of The Journal of Negro Education, from which they can derive an excellent sense of that history, much of it written as the history itself unfolded. (Reading this history as it unfolded has the additional advantage of not having been "tithed up" by those of us looking back over most of a century. For an excellent review of the mis-measurement history, see Davis, 1997).

This article is concerned with one slice of that history: the role of achievement tests in the education of African American and other students placed at risk for underachievement. The importance of scores on tests hardly needs debating. At the student level, test scores are used as part of determinations of which students receive which resources in school, and which students are admitted to "gifted and talented" programs in elementary school, honors programs and magnet locations in high schools, prestigious colleges and universities, and advanced graduate programs. In the world of work, test scores are used as part of determinations of who will be allowed to become anything from a specialist in the military to a "fast track" executive. At a macro level, aggregated test scores are used to argue for and against a range of state and national policy-and funding-options. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB, 2002) legislation, test scores are used in states to make public determinations as to the "quality" of all publicly funded schools.

An underlying assumption of this article is that tests and test scores themselves are neither "good" nor "bad." Rather, test data can either be productively or harmfully used by individuals and groups with varying social agendas. While there exist scattered examples of misuses of test score data (see Davis, 1997; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), in this article I will focus on three examples of test score uses that have largely resulted in what I believe to have been a net public good. The examples used have been selected from the most recent 40-year period. These include the "Coleman Report" (Coleman et al., 1966) and a reanalysis by Borman and Dowling (2003), the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and a reanalysis of a decade's NAEP data by scholars at the Rand Corporation (Grissmer & Flanagan, 2001), and an illustrative case study of the use of test scores to assist in documenting the substantial potential for improving the educations of inner-city African American and other students placed at risk in the 21st century. …

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