The Black-White achievement gap is alive and well in the United States. Take New York City as an example. According to a recent article in the New York Times, in the city's 3rd-8th grades, 40% of black students met state standards in the 2010 math tests. This is compared with 75% of white students. In English, 33% of black students were proficient, compared with 64% of white students. These numbers - unfortunately - put to rest previous claims that New York City's racial achievement gap was significantly shrinking.

The Black-White (or racial) achievement gap - the phenomenon whereby white students consistently perform at a higher level on tests than their minority counterparts - is as old as our nation itself. Educators and policy makers have funneled a significant amount of time, money, and resources into trying to diminish it. However, with the exception of a period between the 1970s and 1980s, the gap has stayed fairly steady.

Recently, there seems to be a renewed interest in teachers' role in shaping student test scores. For instance, federal funds now seem to be tied (at least somewhat) to whether schools link teachers' performance to student scores. I suppose one can read this funding issue in a variety of ways, but one interpretation is that the government is saying it's teachers who should be held accountable for the low test scores of their students (which often means the low test scores of minority students in particular). Although teachers certainly play a role in student success, I think it's easy to forget that factors outside the classroom play a big role in minority students' performance as well.

A few months ago, Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that when there is a murder in a black child's neighborhood, his or her math and verbal standardized test scores go down. This is true even if the child doesn't witness the violence directly and isn't personally impacted by it.1 Just being in close proximity to a homicide is enough to hinder academic performance.

To measure how local homicides impact students' test scores, Sharkey compared the test scores of black children directly after a homicide in their neighborhood with other children in the same neighborhood who took the test at a different time. Black students tested directly after a local homicide scored substantially lower than their peers who live in the same neighborhood, but were tested at different times. Of note, Sharkey was unable to find enough murders in predominately white neighborhoods to see if white children were affected, suggesting that this homicide effect is really most damaging for black kids. Indeed, the drop in black children's scores after a homicide account for about half the difference in the typical racial achievement gap.

Keep in mind that it's not just violence outside the classroom that has the potential to contribute to the racial achievement gap. Culturally-held stereotypes that constantly hang over black students' heads in school and out (e.g., "African Americans are not intelligent") may also play a role. For instance, psychologists have known for some time that when blacks are made aware of negative stereotypes about intelligence and race, they perform worse on standardized tests than when this information is not as salient. Indeed, something as simple as checking off your race before you take the SAT lowers black students' scores while having no effect or even increasing white students' performance.

Although scientists and educators are still working on finding the exact cause of these relations, it's not hard to imagine how knowledge of violence in your neighborhood or the awareness of negative stereotypes impugning the intelligence of your race could prevent you from devoting you full attention and effort to what's going on in the classroom. Humans are limited capacity systems, meaning that we only have a finite amount of attentional resources to devote to learning and performance. When these resources are co-opted, for example, by worries about your safety or confirming a stereotype about your ability, performance in the classroom can suffer.

There are no doubt many factors that contribute to the racial achievement gap. But, in addition to focusing on what teachers are doing inside the classroom, it seems prudent to think more systematically about life outside. You never know, such effort might do a world of good in reducing the gap, which, like your golf score, is a number that is better when it's lower.

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1 Sharkey, P. (2010). The acute effect of local homicides on children's cognitive performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 11733-11738.

About the Author

Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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