NPC Working Paper #05-9

June 2005

The Black-White Test Score Gap: Lessons from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics

W. Jean Yeung, Kathryn M. Pfeiffer. New York University.

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Abstract

Based on two waves of data for three age cohorts of children from the PSID-Child Development Supplements, we find large black-white test score differences among children of all ages. Even before children start formal schooling, black children score .8 and .5 of a standard deviation lower than whites in Applied Problem (AP) and Letter-Word (LW) tests respectively. Except for the oldest cohort, the gaps for all tests widened when children's cognitive skills were assessed again six years later. We examine the extent to which child's characteristics, home environment (both structural and cultural factors), and a crude proxy for child's genetic endowment account for these gaps. All achievement gaps before grade three can be accounted for by these covariates. As children move to higher grades, there is a diminishing role of these covariates in explaining the achievement gap. In preschool years, the gaps are reduced to less than .2 of a standard deviation when all covariates are controlled for. In the first three years of school, the gaps are reduced to about .3 of a standard deviation, whereas in high school years, the gaps remain a statistically significant .5 and .7 of a standard deviation for AP and LW scores respectively after all the covariates are controlled for. The set of family characteristics that are significant predictors of the black-white test score gap varies across cohorts and across different tests. In general, however, family SES characteristics are important contributors to the gap between the test scores. Family income has a significant positive impact on AP scores in preschool years and six years later for the youngest cohort (but not on LW scores) though is generally not significant for older cohorts. We also find that gender differences in AP scores (lower for girls) start to emerge, not in preschool years, but as soon as children enter formal schooling and remain prominent in middle and high school years, and that black boys are losing more ground to their white counterparts than black girls.