The Black/White Test-Score Gap (E2)

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
September 1, 2007

This is the first of three papers on U.S. Black/White “gaps.” This one discusses the U.S. Black/White test-score gap. This second looks at the U.S. Black/White financial net worth gap. The third examines the U.S. Black/White crime gap

Few “racial” issues are as politically charged as the U.S. Black/White test-score gap. Over the past two decades, scientists have amassed a wealth of data about the phenomenon. And yet despite their findings, many American political and academic leaders continue to ignore reality and espouse counterproductive solutions to non-existent problems based on discredited theories.

Conservatives claim that the gap is caused by the childhood peer pressure of Black oppositional culture. The evidence contradicts this notion. Liberals claim that it is due to economic class differences. The evidence contradicts this also. Many on both sides insist that the gap is at least partly genetic. This notion has been the most thoroughly demolished of all.

The U.S. Black/White test-score gap is a topic where facts are ignored by powerless and powerful alike, by unlearned and academics alike, and by conservatives and liberals alike. The only people who admit to being baffled by the phenomenon are scientists who have spent years studying it.

It Exists and is Worth Studying

The U.S. Black/White test-score gap is worth investigating. An opinion sometimes heard is that investigation of the test-score gap is an act of “racism,” and so anyone who studies it is a “racist” by definition. The premise is that some matters are best unstudied, and that scientists should steer clear of politically dangerous topics. Stifling investigation for fear that it will uncover something unpleasant is intellectually dangerous and nationally suicidal.

To accuse scientists who study this important and urgent phenomenon and who then report on what they measure of being “racists” is worse than ignorant. It substitutes political coercion for intellectual honesty, a policy that would reduce the United States to third-world status under techno-economic domination by Europe and the Far East within a few generations.

The argument in favor of deliberate ignorance usually includes two subordinate reasons. The U.S. Black/White test-score gap should not be studied because: (1) it does not exist and (2) it is due to cultural bias. Consider each point.

The U.S. Black/White test-score gap undoubtedly exists. It is real, measurable, and its measurement is easily replicated. It does not merely appear in one specific test nor in just a few particular tests. The gap appears in every test of those mental abilities that are important to success in Western culture. It appears in simple tests like counting backwards and in complex tests like the SAT. It appears in K-12 grades and in college graduation rates. It even appears in employers’ objective appraisals of on-the-job performance.


One cannot argue away the U.S. Black/White test-score gap by saying that tests are culturally biased; that they measure only those skills that are important in White (presumably, Western) culture. Of course such tests are culturally biased. They are biased by deliberate intent. Skills that are important in Western industrialized society are precisely what such tests try to measure. One might argue that non-Western, non-industrial skills are equally worthy in some abstract sense. But employers and teachers are uninterested in such skills. What employers and teachers want to know is whether you can learn, express yourself in language, solve logical puzzles, and do math.

Some are misled because the media calls such tests “IQ” tests or “aptitude” tests as if they measured something innate. They do nothing of the sort. They measure those mental skills that are essential to being productive in Western culture, nothing more.


The U.S. Black/White test-score gap is important. Some claim that the gap is irrelevant to day-to-day life. The argument is unpersuasive. The test-score gap has serious social consequences. It imposes a burden of incompetence, ignorance, and consequent poverty on the African-American community. It imposes an even greater burden on U.S. society as a whole, which must deal with a host of social problems, from violent crime to child neglect, that spring from African-American inability to fully contribute or produce.

Here are the known facts about the U.S. Black/White test-score gap for those more interested in reality than in ideology.

It Lacks a “Racial” Genetic Component

The U.S. Black/White test-score gap lacks a “racial” genetic component. The gap is not “racially” genetic, not even a little. This is not to say that the ability to get high scores is not hereditary. It is. Dumb parents have dumb kids and vice-versa. But no hereditary component correlates with U.S. endogamous group membership. Two forces have made heredity the most thoroughly studied hypothesis regarding the gap.

First, Americans are taught from infancy to conceptualize their unique endogamous color line as being biologically based; that Blacks are genetically different from Whites in a sense deeper than superficial appearance. Every American who studies the gap must first overcome this distorting intellectual lens.

Second, every few decades since the early 1800s has seen another book arguing that Afro-Americans are genetically inferior (the most recent being The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray). Each such revival captures the U.S. imagination and so each must be overcome. Among the many replicable facts disproving a genetic component are:

  • No gap appears between the scores of unassimilated first-generation immigrant grade-school children from sub-Saharan Africa and those of White children.
  • No gap appears between the test scores of unassimilated first-generation British West Indian immigrant grade-school children of predominantly sub-Saharan ancestry and those of White children.
  • No gap appears between the test scores of unassimilated first-generation Latin American immigrant grade-school children of predominantly sub-Saharan ancestry and those of White children.
  • Although there is a slight correlation between the gap and sub-Saharan features (skin tone, hair texture, etc.), there is no correlation between the gap and actual sub-Saharan DNA genetic admixture markers. (There is a difference between ethnicity and genetic admixture in the United States. The former depends on a few superficial appearance genes. The latter depends on actual ancestry. Millions of ethnically White Americans have detectable genetic admixture from African slave ancestors. They do not show a gap. Millions of ethnically Black Americans lack sub-Saharan genetic markers. They do. The gap follows self-identity, not genes.)
  • No gap appears between the test scores of Black grade-school children raised by two White adoptive parents and those of White children. (Until adolescence, when their mental skills plunge to the same level as Black children raised by Black parents.)
  • Grade-school children of a White mother and Black father show a slightly less severe test-score gap.
  • Grade-school children of a Black mother and White father show the same test-score gap as children with two Black parents.
  • In England, Afro-descent children of British West Indian immigrants show a temporary gap that lasts only until they acculturate. See the newspaper article here.

It is Not Caused by Parental Poverty or Ignorance

The U.S. Black/White test-score gap is not caused by poverty or ignorance. Specifically, it correlates only weakly with family class differences. Among the replicated facts are:

  • Children of high-school dropouts exhibit the same gap as children of those with postgraduate degrees.
  • Children of wealthy Black families exhibit the same gap as children of poor Black families.
  • Children of college-educated Black families exhibit the same gap as children of uneducated Black families.

School Improvement Programs do Not Work

Formal schooling is irrelevant to the U.S. Black/White test-score gap. The U.S. Black/White test-score gap is not due to differences in public schools. Among the replicated facts are:

  • Reducing class sizes for Black grade-school children reduces the gap, but not by much. Increasing class sizes for White grade-school children has no effect on White children’s mental skills.
  • Increasing teacher skill level for Black grade-school children reduces the gap, but not by much. Reducing teacher skill level for White children has no effect on White children’s mental skills.
  • Having only White teachers teach Black grade-school children reduces the gap, but not by much. Having only Black teachers teach White children has no effect on White children’s mental skills.
  • Pouring funding into grade-school resources for Black children (facilities, libraries, lunches, art, music) reduces the gap, but not by much. Withholding grade-school resources from White children has no effect on White children’s mental skills.

Adolescent Peer-Pressure in Not the Sole Cause

Adolescent peer pressure seeing excellence as “acting white” is not the sole cause.

It has been demonstrated and confirmed that the U.S. Black/White test-score gap appears by age 3. It may well appear earlier but this has not been tested yet. Three years of age is too young for peer pressure to have any developmental impact. Hence, peer pressure against “acting White” cannot explain the demonstrable test-score gap between Black and White three-year-olds.

On the other hand, adolescent peer pressure may possibly explain the sudden appearance of a test-score gap among children of sub-Saharan superficial appearance raised by White parents.

Recall that Black grade-school children raised by two White adoptive parents exhibit no gap until adolescence, when their mental skills plunge to the same level as Black children raised by Black parents.

Two additional facts may shed more light. First, one study concluded that, in fact, there is no such thing as peer pressure among Black adolescents to avoid “acting White.” The study asked Black adolescents if they studied as hard as White students. Most answered in the affirmative. This suggests either that: (1) there is no peer pressure to avoid “acting White,” (2) Black adolescents delude themselves, or (3) Black adolescents are less than candid towards middle-aged sociologists asking questions.

The second odd fact is that there is some weak evidence of a “grandmother effect.” Although grade-school children of Black parents exhibit the same gap, regardless of those parents’ wealth or education, grade-school children with educated grandparents seem to have a smaller gap than those with uneducated grandparents.

Given these facts, it seems possible that there are two different phenomena: First, a test-score gap related to the ethnicity (but not to the genetics) of parents that appears in infancy or early childhood. Second, a test-score gap related to the superficial appearance (but not to the ethnicity or deeper genetics) of adolescents that appears in high school.

Summary and Recent Findings

One final point before we get into the very latest findings. The gap is no longer shrinking. The B/W test-score gap shrank during the 8 years from 1980 to 1988. This led some to think that it eventually would go away on its own.

Not so. The gap shrank to a minimum in 1988 but then widened again and is now almost back to its 1970 level.

To re-cap: What do we now know? First, we know that dozens of hypotheses from before 1990 have been demolished or seriously weakened. The hypothesis of a genetic connection has been demolished since studies in the early 1990s showed no gap in first-gen immigrant kids from Africa or from the former BWI, and no K-6 gap in Afro-ancestry kids raised by Euro-ancestry adoptive parents. The hypotheses of a connection to socioeconomic class and parental education have been seriously weakened due to lack of correlation.

Second, there are apparently two different phenomena in involved, two different gaps with at least two different causes. One phenomenon is a test-score gap in children ages 3 to 10 that appears only in A-A children raised by A-A parents. The other is a high school gap that appears regardless of parents.

Taking all of this into account, three hypotheses have so far stood the test of time (and data collection).

  • For ages 3-10, that there is a difference in parenting skill at providing intellectual stimulation during a child’s first two years.
  • For ages 6-18, that there is an impact of low teacher expectations of minority children.
  • For ages 11-18, that there is “oppositional culture” peer-pressure against A-A youngsters.

Let’s examine those last two hypotheses in more detail. The late John Ogbu best explained both the “teacher expectation” and the “oppositional culture” hypotheses by collecting findings on both phenomena around the world. Oppressed minorities everywhere tend to develop an “oppositional culture” that rejects the mainstream values of their perceived oppressors. This manifests in high-achieving adolescents being attacked as “race traitors” and “sell-outs” by their peers.

Around the world also, teachers expect oppressed minority children to do poorly, and so they obediently do. This applies equally to teachers of the same minority. The most famous demonstration of this phenomenon was Ogbu’s comparison of Burakumin children’s school achievement in Japan versus in the U.S. In Japan (where their caste is recognized), children of the Shinto “unclean” caste suffer from a test-score gap relative to mainstream children. But when their families come to the United States (where their caste is unrecognized), the very same children are seen as simply Japanese-Americans and excel in school.

With all of that in mind, consider two studies by Brain Ray: one in 1997 and one published on February 3, 2010. Both found that home-schooled children do not display a B/W test-score gap. That home-schooled children in general do much better on standardized tests than public-school children has been known for many years. But the absence of a test-score gap was discovered in the 1997 study and confirmed in the 2010 study.

Ray’s findings must still be replicated by independent researchers. Another problem is that less than 2 percent of home-schooled children are African Americans, compared to 13 percent in the general population, so the data may hide a selection process. Nevertheless, the studies are important because they support Ogbu’s hypotheses.

The good news of the latest findings is that they show that the public school environment is the problem. Take kids out of public school and the gap vanishes. The bad news is that home-schooling nullifies both peer-pressure and teacher expectation. Consequently, these findings do not help us to choose between the two surviving hypotheses for the U.S. Black/White test-score gap in high school.

Read the Introduction

Anyone interested in the U.S. Black/White test score gap should read at least the introduction to Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, The Black-White Test Score Gap(Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1998). It is a collection of reports by dozens of different researchers from many institutions. Their reports are assembled topically into fifteen chapters.

This book is the best and most up-to-date collection of results from experiments designed to explore the phenomenon. At 523 pages of highly technical material, it is probably a bit tedious for most readers. Nevertheless, the introduction summarizes the results of all the experiments, one by one, in a succinct easy-to-read 47 pages. Anyone with an interest in the subject should beg borrow or steal a copy of this book for long enough to read it.

At least read the introduction, which is available online here.

In conclusion, one is reminded of the famous physicist who quipped, “If you think that you understand quantum mechanics, it just shows that you do not understand it.” Similarly, if you claim to know the cause and cure of the U.S. Black/White test-score gap, it just shows that you do not understand it.

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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

Other Backintyme sites: Essays on the U.S. Color Line Armed Citizens and the Law
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