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The black-white test score gap: economist Kevin Lang’s view

CAS economics dept. chairman will discuss contentious issue today

CAS Economics Department Chairman Kevin Lang. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The discussion of why African-Americans score lower than European Americans on standardized tests is often contentious, partly, says Kevin Lang, because “our lack of understanding of the sources of intelligence makes it easy for people to hold strong opinions that are not easily contradicted by the evidence.”

But the CAS economics professor and department chairman points out that understanding of the problem has progressed a great deal over the past few decades. He will give a talk on the issue on Wednesday, October 19, at 5 p.m. in CAS Room 211.

There is still much to be learned about how to lessen the gap in vocabulary, reading, and math test scores. However, Lang says, elements of an effective intervention should include an examination of parenting practices and preschool programs, since the disparity begins before children enter kindergarten.

Solutions also include addressing the differences in the quality of schools attended by black children and those attended by white children, says Lang, who is chairman of the Brookline School Committee. “Mentoring and tutoring are among the many things we can do,” he says.

The black-white test score gap narrowed throughout the 20th century, and especially since 1970. From 1971 to 1996, for example, the reading gap shrank by almost half, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Although the median score of American blacks is still below the scores of 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests, Lang says there is reason to believe that a sustained effort to narrow the gap further could succeed. “Over time we have seen enough of a change in the black-white test score differentials — and an improvement in I.Q. and achievement scores for populations as a whole — to know that they can change,” he says.

Reducing the test score gap is crucial in reducing racial inequality in educational attainment — and wages, says Lang, who notes that blacks and whites with similar test scores have similar earnings.

Lang’s talk, one in the CAS series Conversations with Economists, is free and open to the public. Robert Margo, a CAS professor of economics and African-American studies, will also take part in the informal discussion. For more information, e-mail hardeo@bu.edu or call 617-353-4623.