It’s Not a Race (Thing)

"We know that, historically, African American and Hispanic
students do not score as well on the NAEP (National Assessment of
Educational Progress) as their Caucasian and Asian peers."

What do
preschool teachers know about race and poverty that educational
researchers don't? How many times have we heard a statement like this
as educators? For some reason – even though it may be true
statistically – it doesn't seem to make sense because the statement itself obscures
the real issues. It doesn't necessarily matter that many African
American students score lower on these types of tests because not all
of them do.

These types of statements contribute to bias against African
American students because they connect the problem -poor achievement-
to the descriptor instead of the cause. If a researcher said, "We know
that, historically African American and Hispanic students do not score
as well on the ______ test as their white and Asian peers because of the inherent racial bias of the _____ test," only then should a child's race be an important part of the discussion.

Often We have these types of discussions in my
doctoral classes. This semester, I am taking a measurement in
educational research course. It is meant to prepare us, the budding
researchers, for our dissertation and future life as an educational
"expert" ie Ph.D. This week the issue of race came up. Specifically,
the professor mentioned the "achievement gap" in order to push the
conversation into uncomfortable territory. I put "achievement gap" in
quotes intentionally because it doesn't seem worth talking about
outside of the context of test validity and reliability. Usually after
a statement about testing and race someone will say, "That is is
because tests are biased." Then another researcher might say, "But,
there is more of a correlation between socio-economic status and test
scores." Even though the statement is true, it doesn't contribute to a
deeper understanding of the issue. It uses descriptors in an almost
causal relationship to data. The "achievement gap" assumes that the
tests are valid and the scores are reliable indicators of student
achievement. In actuality, they may only be valid for students from the
dominate white culture. By switching the argument to money you just
change the context of the discrimination. By saying, "Well actually its
about money not race." researchers are able to wash their hands of the
issue because there is no way that schools can impact how rich or poor
a kid is, when they know there is no reason a child's race should
affect a test score either.

Many preschool teachers know that the only thing that matters in a
child's educational trajectory is the frequency and types of language
interactions and experiences children have in their early years. Hart & Risley
pointed this out in Meaningful Differences. They found the strongest
influence on a student's vocabulary was the types of talk children
engaged in as an infant, toddler, and preschooler. The number of words
that children knew at age 3 was found to be predictive of achievement
at age 9. However, some children of professional parents, who didn't
spend much time talking with their kids had similar average minutes of
interaction as some welfare and working class families. Across the
board the researchers found race was not found to influence the
vocabulary of children at all. Hart & Risley "saw quality added to
interactions when we saw parents talking to their children beyond what
was necessary to manage or provide care." So yes, poverty is a factor
in the development of children's vocabulary because
the essence of poverty is a struggle to survive. Poverty requires
parents to focus on the day-to-day survival of their family.

If we were to re-frame the achievement as a "language development" gap
we we might get closer to the "truth" about why some kids score higher
and lower on standards based tests. Yesterday I heard a woman in a
supermarket tell her 9 month old that her cookie looked "scrumptious".
Does it matter what race the woman was? Of course not, I know that her
child will likely hear many words like "scrumptious" in her early life.
A more correct way of describing the achievement gap might be to
discriminate between students with few language experiences (FLE),
substantial language experiences (SLE), and many language experiences
(MLE). Is this practical? No, but at least it would be true. By
continuing to attach race and class to achievement we support the
assertion that they are predictive when they aren't, they are just an
easy way to sort data.

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