Fifty years ago, communities across America began efforts to make school districts more racially integrated, believing it would ease racial disparities in students’ educational opportunities. But new evidence shows that while racial segregation within a district is a very strong predictor of achievement gaps, school poverty – not the racial composition of schools – accounts for this effect.
In other words, racial segregation remains a major source of educational inequality, but this is because racial segregation almost always concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, according to new research led by Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE).
“The only school districts in the U.S. where racial achievement gaps are even moderately small are those where there is little or no segregation. Every moderately or highly segregated district has large racial achievement gaps,” said Reardon, the Professor of Poverty and Inequality at Stanford GSE. “But it’s not the racial composition of the schools that matters. What matters is when black or Hispanic students are concentrated in high-poverty schools in a district.”
The findings were released on Sept. 23 in a paper accompanying the launch of a new interactive data tool from the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, an initiative directed by Reardon to support efforts to reduce educational disparities throughout the United States.
Test scores as measures of opportunity
The Educational Opportunity Project gives journalists, educators, policymakers and parents a way to explore and compare data from the groundbreaking Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), the first comprehensive national database of academic performance.
The database, first made available online in 2016 in a format designed mainly for researchers, is built from 350 million reading and math test scores from third to eighth grade students during 2008-2016 in every public school in the nation. It also includes district-level measures of racial and socioeconomic composition, segregation patterns and other educational conditions.