Perceptions Differ on Why Black Students are Falling Behind

Earlier this year College Board (which administers the SAT) unveiled their new “adversity score,” and the national conversation around what factors are responsible for lower levels of academic achievement and lower lifetime earnings has intensified. The score, which measures the level of economic and social adversity test takers face, weighs factors such as the median family income and percentage of households in poverty within the neighborhood the test taker lives. Almost immediately, College Board faced criticism for this approach and earlier this month they announced that they would not be reporting out the score as planned.

No matter what eventually happens with these scores, at the heart of this discussion is the role these factors play in a determining the likelihood of academic success. It seems absurd to deny that these factors are strongly correlated to success, however, there is much more room for disagreement around how to use this information.

Regardless of where you fall on the support spectrum for College Board’s recent efforts—and their subsequent decision to pull the scores—there is plenty of data on this topic to look at and draw conclusions from. Much of this data focuses on what is happening in the classroom, but there is also research on how societal effects have a profound influence on students. One of our partner organizations, Lincoln Park Strategies, did some of this research with America’s Promise to look at why kids tend to drop out of school. Further, there is now a growing school of thought, captured in an article by Nick Hanauer, arguing that we need to focus more on economics and less on education to improve societal outcomes.

We are positive there will be plenty of debate over the role of education and how best to improve outcomes (and what outcomes are important) for years to come. Since we always want to inject some new data points into the discussion, we thought it would be interesting to find out what Americans felt were the drivers of some of the problems our education system faces. Specifically, we looked at the views on the causes of the achievement gap that exists between white and Asian students compared to African American students. To do this, we asked our national panels to allocate the cause between four options: lack of motivation, low levels of funding, varying levels of support from their community, and racist attitudes.

As always, Trendency allows us to get a more nuanced view of how Americans view different issues, and in this specific case, what factors contribute to the existence of the academic achievement gap. As you can see in the chart below, we generally found that individuals attributed varying levels among the listed options with no single issue being viewed as the main reason. However, while our topline results see a somewhat even distribution among the four factors, the intensity of those beliefs varied vastly along racial and political lines—something we will delve into shortly. 

The average allocation says that on average, respondents allocated 33% of the achievement gap is attributed to “lack of motivation from students.” This should not be interpreted to read that 33% of respondents selected ‘lack of motivation.’

The average allocation says that on average, respondents allocated 33% of the achievement gap is attributed to “lack of motivation from students.” This should not be interpreted to read that 33% of respondents selected ‘lack of motivation.’

If we look at the order of allocation for the attributes that are responsible for the achievement gap between students of color and white students, we see the leading cause is perceived to be a ‘lack of motivation,’ a phrase that has been linked to prejudiced stereotypes about black students for generations. ‘Lower levels of funding’ and ‘varying levels of support’ rank almost evenly coming at second and third respectively, with ‘racist attitudes and treatment’ coming in fourth out of our four options. 

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In the chart above we see the racial divide we alluded to earlier. While the average allocation among white Americans is heavily weighted to ‘a lack of motivation,’ the lowest factor, on average, is systemic racism. ‘Lower levels of funding’ and ‘varying levels of support from the community’ were viewed as roughly equal overall among white Americans. We see a different view among Americans of color. Among this cohort, the four choices are viewed much closer to being equal factors with a ‘lack of motivation’ and ‘lower levels of funding’ receiving the highest allocation (27% each) followed by a ‘lack of community support’ and systemic racism. These increases may seem subtle, but they are significant when we take a deeper look at the strength of response. 

As we peel back the layers, we see a significant gap between how strongly respondents’ beliefs were rooted in the ‘lack of motivation’ statement—with a nearly five-times larger strength of response compared to other categories. This indicates that there is a significant segment of the population that attributes almost everything to ‘lack of motivation.’ While on average Americans allocated 33% to a ‘lack of motivation,’ what we are seeing here is that 18% of Americans are attributing almost 100% to this factor, which is significantly different than other factors.

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So who primarily makes up this “almost everything has to do with lack of motivation group”? As we saw previously, there was a difference among racial lines, but it was subtle.  When we break down this data along political lines however, this is where we start to understand the divide better.

The chart below breaks down the average amount of weight self-described Republicans, Democrats, and Independents gave to each option. Although no party was precluded from assigning value to the claim that ‘lack of motivation’ plays at least some role in the problem, those who identify as Republican overwhelmingly assigned responsibility to the laziness of students. This fits into a broader theme we see in the data—that Democrats (and many Independents) see many social and economic factors, including the absence of funding and racist sentiments, at the core of the issue while many Republicans see the responsibility for the achievement gap as falling on the individual.

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Furthermore, when we look at the strength of support for these positions the numbers are even more stark.

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As shown earlier, the average allocation given to laziness as a factor in the achievement gap, is a third (33%) of American adults. Meanwhile a third of Republicans indicate that laziness has almost everything to do with why we have an achievement gap.

Given these views, it is less surprising to see a lack of support for additional funding for public schools, or efforts designed to contract the achievement gap coming from Republican voters and Republican legislators. It also points to why there was such outcry about the College Board’s adversity scoring plan. If you view the problem as laziness of black students, there is little motivation to make changes to funding levels or approaches since those who hold these views see the problem as an individual one.  

Currently 52% of state legislative seats are held by Republican officials and 61 of the 99 state legislative chambers are controlled by the GOP. And while the belief that a lack of motivation is the only cause of educational outcomes is not universal within the GOP, the data points to why increased funding and/or changes in the education system is not viewed as an imperative to many of the legislators within the party. The data also shows yet another example of our continued inability to even agree on what the problems are, let alone agree on what the solution should be

Brendan Gleason