Getting on the Schoolbus

Here are most of the country’s thousands of school districts on a common scale, showing the average difference in 3rd-8th grade test scores between black and white students in each district.


The overwhelming majority of districts have a positive test score gap, with the average district gap of around 2/3 of a standard deviation.

These gaps are larger where the average test score in the district is higher– the better the average student is doing the further behind the average black student is:


You can show this graph a different way- what is the approximate percentile of a black student in the district, for higher performing and lower performing districts?




This looks to me like a major and underdiscussed problem for deliberate racial integration programs (what used to be called busing.) As everybody knows, there are already considerable hurdles to go through for families to settle in well-off school districts with high performing schools. As a result, the black families who are already in high-achieving districts are already considerably selected for characteristics correlated with high achievement. But the average racial gap in those districts is larger, and the average black student’s performance within the district is relatively (in comparison with other district students) lower, than in the nation as a whole.  Any kind of deliberate program of school integration is going to take students and families who are less selected for high achievement than the students and families who already on their own recognizance made it into high achieving districts. This means you’re exaggerating within-district racial achievement gaps that are already much larger than the gaps in the nation as a whole. At some point, my guess is that peer effects start working in reverse- rather than being “pulled up” by contact with higher achieving peers, the huge gulfs in achievement intensify the sense of two separate and unbridgeable academic castes. This looks already to be occurring in some of the districts with the very largest gaps in the country , otherwise well-functioning college towns like Berkeley and Chapel Hill:

berkeley (1)

9 thoughts on “Getting on the Schoolbus

  1. My personal experience, and my kids’ experience, is that mixing high achievers with low achievers may cause a larger disparity between the two groups, but also that the high achievers scores are pulled down somewhat from what would be a higher score if otherwise separate. I’m sure you’ve seen this too as a teacher…bad peer pressure is more common, and pulls a good kid down faster and easier than good peer pressure motivated a bad kid to perform better.


      1. Well that is a bit of a mealy mouthed response, no offense. I’m not going to pretend that I, or anyone for that matter, know the right mix of any kind of integration. But bottom up spontaneous mixing is better than top down imposed mixing, whether academic or otherwise. At least anonymously, I will acknowledge the trade-offs such that we think that middle class kids are magic pixie dust and it takes just a few to bring a lot of lower achieving kids’ averages up, when in actuality it doesn’t take a whole lot of lower class kids, that generally have poor behavior and bad attitudes, to bring averages down.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. According to your own figures, a 3 standard deviation movement in the performance of the district implies slightly less than a 1 standard deviation change in the gap. If both standard deviations are the same number, then in a high performing district the gap is moving by far less than the average performance. This means the black students are actually ahead of those in weaker districts, just not as much further ahead than the other students.

    In many high performing districts there are poor neighborhoods, and even separate schools that serve those neighborhoods.


    1. Right, it’s about within district percentile rather than overall percentile; you can check out the NYT link which uses some of the same data in their interactive.


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