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Tracing Black-White Achievement Gaps Since the Brown v. Board Decision

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 (Allison Shelley/EDUimages)

Last week, I wrote about trends in school segregation in the 70 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. That data showed considerable progress in integrating schools but also some steps backward, especially since the 1990s in the nation’s biggest cities.

We should care about this troubling shift because many researchers say that children learn best in integrated classrooms. That’s why I also wanted to trace the data on academic achievement over the same time period. Unfortunately, we don’t have consistent test scores dating back to 1954, but we do have reading scores since 1971, when school segregation plummeted, and math scores starting in 1978.

The four charts below show that achievement follows a bumpy path. Black students tended to make remarkable gains in the 1970s and 1980s, narrowing the achievement gaps between white and Black students. Then, Black achievement continued to climb even as the gap between the races widened. That’s because achievement gains for white students often grew faster than for Black students. (The long-term assessment format changed in 2004, which is why you’ll notice some spikes or kinks for that year in the graphs below.) Since the pandemic, achievement for both white and Black students has deteriorated, but the deterioration has been sharper for Black students.

Students are expected to have learned to read by age 9, which corresponds to third or fourth grade in elementary school. This chart shows that young Black students progressed in reading for four decades, from 1971 to 2012, when the scores of Black children peaked. The gap between white and Black students hasn’t improved much since 2008.


As students moved from elementary to middle school, the improvement in reading for Black students was dramatic in the 1970s and 1980s. The gap between white and Black students was at its most narrow in 1988, but the scores of Black 13-year-olds continued to rise until 2008. In a speech delivered at the 2024 annual meeting of the American Educational Research association, Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, projected these scores onto a screen and credited President Johnson’s War on Poverty and new investments in education for halving the achievement gap in the 1960s and 1970s. “Elimination of these policies reopened the achievement gap, which is now 30% larger than it was 35 years ago,” Darling-Hammond calculated.

Math scores for 9-year-olds show a more consistent march upwards, with both Black and white students improving at similar rates through the 1980s and 1990s. Achievement gaps were at their most narrow in 2004, but Black 9-year-olds continued to make progress in math through 2012.

The pattern for 13-year-olds in math mimics the pattern for 9-year-olds through 2012, but there’s an alarming slide for Black students after that. Between 2012 and 2023, 40 years of progress in math vanished. This is a critical time as students transition to algebra and advanced high school math classes. Mastery of more complex math becomes important for college applications and the option to major in a STEM field.

Test scores aren’t the only important measure of achievement. Rucker Johnson, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, documents that significant gains in graduation rates and adult earnings are missed when there’s too much focus on short-term test score gains.

Another large study published in 2022 found that educational gains for Black students were the largest in the South after desegregation, while Black students in the north did not show similar improvement.

More detailed analysis of Black achievement explains how intertwined it is with poverty. So many Black students are concentrated in high-poverty schools, where teacher turnover is high and students are less likely to be taught by excellent, veteran teachers. Meanwhile administrators are struggling with non-academic challenges, such as high rates of homelessness, foster care, violence and absenteeism that interfere with learning. None of these are problems that schools alone can fix.

This story about Black-white achievement gaps was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters.

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