By Grace Austin

A gap in achievement scores still exists between whites and minorities. This is true for all minorities, including Hispanics and Native Americans. Attempts to close proficiency gaps have been spotty, sometimes successful and sometimes failures. Schools, sociologists, and thought leaders across the country have been debating this question for years: why do minority test scores still lag behind whites?

Studies show Hispanic and African Americans are far below their Asian and white counterparts in terms of graduation rates. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Asian and Pacific Islanders have the largest percentage of high school graduates, with almost 90%; whites are not far behind, while 84% of blacks receive their high school diploma. Hispanics, meanwhile, have a total population of 63% that receive high school educations, with Mexicans the lowest portion of this demographic, at 57%.

College graduates are dramatically lower for all ethnicities, with 13.9% of those with Hispanic origins receiving their college degree, and only 20% of blacks.

Cultural and Environmental Factors

Those raised in poverty are shown to have lower achievement scores overall. Many children that are poor lack stability, proper nutrition, and sufficient medical care, which affects development. This is not a deciding factor though; there are many low-income students who go on to receive higher education degrees despite overwhelming factors against them. There are also many high-poverty and high-minority schools throughout the country that are high-achieving, most notably in Houston, Boston, and Detroit.

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Experts say the problem stems from entrenched familial factors as simple as skipping breakfast, watching too much television, and reading less. Indeed, parenting influence has been the strongest determinant of a child’s education. For instance, many Asian parents have been cited as applying strict rules to all aspects of their children’s lives in order to make them “successful.” Several noted books, including Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, have acknowledged this phenomenon. By the same token, sociologists Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips have argued in The Black-White Test Score Gap that minority parents do not encourage early education because they do not see personal benefits in academics.

Many experts blame parents for not creating an environment promoting education and academics. Instead, parents often stress that their kids avoid gangs, drugs, and stay out of prisons. Unfortunately, these low expectations also lead to low self-confidence and little ambition.

African-American leaders like Bill Cosby have led unofficial campaigns stressing the importance of education to parents and students. Cosby emphasizes parenting and education in the African-American community, having personally endowed millions of dollars to educational outreach at schools like HBCU Spelman College.

Structural and Governmental Factors

Institutional factors can often contribute to an achievement gap in testing. Many minority students do not have access to the advantages that other students do, including better trained teachers and more educational resources. This is often related back to their residency in lower-income areas. Children of more affluent families can often afford test preparation materials and services, which can affect test scores as well.

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Some organizations, like Fair Test, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, blame test scores for a lack of minority college students and graduates. Fair Test believes that “rigid use of SATs for college admissions will produce freshman classes with very few minorities.” Fair Test reports that colleges which have made the SAT optional have more diversity among applicants and no less academic quality.

Fair Test and other watch-dog groups have blamed low minority achievement scores on government policies, like Bush-era No Child Left Behind, which attempted to standardize all testing nationally. The Obama administration has instituted the Race to the Top (RTTT) program, which provides grants to states that produce measurable changes in student achievement. One major goal of RTTT is to close the achievement gap between blacks and whites.

Obama also renewed the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics in 2010, which attempts to improve Hispanic/Latino access to education by reaching out to communities, establishing a network of community leaders to advise the president, and forming a group to exchange resources and discuss issues in the Hispanic/Latino community.

NPOs like Excelencia in Education have attempted to use collaborative action to increase educational attainment for Latinos and Hispanics. Excelencia in Education created an initiative in 2010, Ensuring America’s Future by Increasing Latino College Completion, in an effort to improve the number of Latinos that finish their degrees.

How Things can be Changed

Recruiting minority teachers and administrators and improving minority-outreach programs is often key to improved grades and test performance. Minority teachers and administrators have the benefit of more inside knowledge about minority students. Outreach programs are also valuable for introducing families, especially immigrant families that may not speak English, to educational programs and the benefits of education for their children.

Parents are an important part, if not the most important, of changing kids’ attitudes and achievements. Parents who attend teacher conferences and college nights demonstrate to children that they are keeping tabs on academic performance.

Having a parent, teacher, friend, or mentor who is encouraging is important. Programs like Big Brother, Big Sister give less fortunate kids the opportunity to have a mentor that encourages them and acts as a role model.

Outside the classroom, initiatives like afterschool programs have helped improve scores for minority students in Wisconsin. Technology can also be used as a complement to regular teaching. There are many websites that feature tutorials in math and other subjects, which can greatly benefit kids that need a little extra help.