Achievement Gap Discourse has a Downside

Promise Academy studentsUSC’s David Quinn finds experimental evidence that news stories about the “achievement gap” contribute to stereotypes regarding academics and race.

“Achievement gap discourse (AGD)” has driven conversations about race in education for the past several decades and has drawn criticism for its central metaphor. While a desire to understand and address educational inequality spawned conversations of the so-called achievement gap, scholars like pedagogical theorist and teacher educator Gloria Ladson-Billings point out that AGD “constructs students as defective and lacking” and “admonishes them to catch up.” Thus, even before seeking solutions to address racial bias in schools, many are left wondering how to discuss the issue in the first place.

Individual variables such as motivation, parenting, and home environments are often offered as reasons for the achievement gap. “There’s a concern that by focusing on the achievement of individuals and the ‘achievement gap’ metaphor, we’re drawing people’s attention to individual-level variables rather than looking at the greater structures,” said Dr. David Quinn, Assistant Professor of Education in the K-12 Education Policy concentration at USC’s Rossier School of Education. “This may lead to deficit-based, individual explanations rather than structural explanations.”

However, these concerns about AGD have been mostly theoretical, with no experimental evidence of it to date. “Some hypothesize that AGD perpetuates explicit and implicit stereotypes” continued Quinn. “According to the ‘representativeness heuristic’, for example, sometimes people come to hold stereotypes about a social group not because of information they receive about common characteristics among members of the group, but rather because of information they receive about between-group differences. Even when those differences are small, they tend to become exaggerated in our minds. For example, there's a stereotype that Floridians are elderly, but it's not because the majority of the Florida population is over 65. Only 17% of Floridians fit into that age group. Yet because that's larger than the national population of people over 65 (13%), this difference has exaggerated to that of a stereotype in people's minds.”

To test this hypothesis, Quinn devised a series of studies to explore whether AGD in fact does affect people’s racial stereotypes.

In the first study, respondents either viewed a two-minute news clip that discusses between-race inequalities on a state test (AGD group) or a promotional video from the Promise Academy of Harlem Children’s Zone. The two-minute news clip opened with the quote "disappointing numbers out today show the wide achievement gap in Minnesota between white and minority students is not getting any smaller." Conversely, the Promise Academy video served as a counter-stereotypical example by showing clips of Black students in school, wearing school uniforms, discussing their academic goals, and sharing what they like about their school.

After respondents were randomly assigned to view one of these two videos, Quinn administered two measures of stereotypes. The first was a measure of perceived stereotype representativeness, a question that read: “The national high school graduation rate for white students is 86%. What is your best guess of what the national high school graduation rate is for black students?" The actual national black high school graduation rate is 78%, and the larger the respondent believed the difference to be compared to the actual difference, the more biased the respondent's perception of stereotype representativeness was thought to be.

The second measure examined implicit stereotypes via the Implicit Association Test (IAT). More positive values on this scale represented implicit associations of white students as being more competent than black students.

In a second study, Quinn added a neutral third video of a Kahn Academy tutorial as a control. After viewing the videos, respondents were asked, among other things, to guess the percentage of Black American students who graduate from high school.

These studies found consistent evidence that watching the AGD video increased bias in viewers’ perceptions of how representative the stereotype of the “Black high school drop-out” is. Though all groups underestimated the high school graduation rate for Black students, those who viewed the AGD video guessed the rate as significantly lower than the other respondents. These results replicated across the two studies.

“There are between-group differences in high school graduation rates between black and white students,” Quinn explained. “But these differences are clearly magnified in the minds of the respondents on these studies. When we expose viewers to AGD messages, bias increases.”

Importantly, the studies’ effects faded out over two weeks--as measured by an additional follow-up study. “It would be surprising if the effect held up two weeks later just from watching a two-minute clip. But the studies’ findings are suggestive of cumulative long-term effects. We saw that all groups on average gave large underestimates of the Black national high school graduation rates. So the stereotype is pervasive. And that stereotype is coming from somewhere.”

Quinn’s work provides the first experimental evidence of the effects of the AGD. The immediate effect of the AGD video he observed suggests that these kinds of narratives contribute to overall stereotypes regarding academics and race. “It’s important to understand that the framing of these conversations matters,” concluded Quinn. “We know from past research that framing affects people differently based on their prior beliefs and values. So if we’re to increase support for equity-focused policies, we need to be really mindful about the way we talk about the problem.”

Alternative language that leans away from deficit-thinking can help with this framing shift, and some have adopted the term “opportunity gap” as one of those alternatives. By focusing on the gap in opportunities rather than achievement, advocates can expand the conversation to include those structural explanations hidden by AGD. This adjusted language gives a fuller view of the opportunities and challenges of students while also bringing institutions into more active roles in the search for solutions.


To view the full discussion of this study and its findings, along with a discussion of another study about abating racial bias with rubrics, check out David Quinn’s full webinar.