The achievement gap between white students and black students has barely narrowed over the last 50 years, despite nearly a half century of supposed progress in race relations and an increased emphasis on closing such academic discrepancies between groups of students.

That’s the finding that a new analysis of a landmark education report calls a “national embarrassment.”

“It’s remarkable,” says Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, who authored the analysis. “I knew that the gap hadn’t been closing too much, but when I actually looked at the data I was myself surprised.”

The finding is part of a series from Education Next commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Equality of Education Opportunity,” also known as the Coleman Report, a breakthrough report on education equity written by James Coleman, then a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The report was mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which tasked the Department of Education with examining the inequality of educational opportunities in elementary and secondary education across the U.S., and especially in the South, to gauge the differences between schools attended by white students and black students.

The Coleman Report found, among many other things, that in both math and reading the average black student in grade 12 placed in the 13th percentile of the score distribution, meaning that 87 percent of white students in grade 12 scored ahead of the average black 12th grader.

But 50 years later, that gap has barely narrowed, Hanushek’s analysis shows. The average 12th grade black student, according to data from the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress, placed only in the 19th percentile. In reading, the achievement gap has improved slightly more than in math, but after a half century, the average black student scores at just the 22nd percentile.

“I was surprised because I think we hear more about promising attempts to close the gap and we hear a lot about school systems in states that are focused on closing the achieving gap, and yet the progress is so disappointingly slow,” says Hanushek.

The Black-White Achievement Gap Persists


The largest gains in both math and reading were found in the Southern states, where the larger gaps observed in 1965 were brought in line with the rest of the nation by 2013, Hanushek’s analysis shows. Generally, however, there was slow improvement in much of the rest of the country, including an expanded reading gap in the Midwest.

He estimates that if the achievement gaps continue close at such an incremental rate, it will be roughly two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes.

“If [the Coleman Report] was expected to mobilize the resources of the nation’s schools in pursuit of racial equity, it undoubtedly failed to achieve its objective,” Hanushek wrote. “Nor did it increase the overall level of performance of high school students on the eve of their graduation, despite the vast increase in resources that would be committed to education over the ensuing five decades.”

Achievement Gains are Unrelated to Increased Spending


What’s more, the achievement disparities across races and regions were one of the most overlooked findings tucked into the 700 plus-page report – something that seems inconceivable in a world where today policymakers and politicians are obsessed with outcomes.

What happened after the release of the Coleman Report, Hanushek explains, is that all of the attention went to the role families and schools played in achievement – at the time a very novel idea and one that’s had a lasting impact.

It seems difficult to imagine a report that found the average black 12th grader in the rural South registered an achievement level that was comparable to that of a white 7th grader in the urban Northeast not making headlines. But that’s precisely what the Coleman Report found, and that gap and others never received attention.

“Everybody focused in on that and ignored page after page of achievement differences,” says Hanushek. “Partly, I think in 1965 we were not used to having measures of what kids knew in schools. We just didn’t have achievement measures for a large part of the population.”

As a result, Hanushek argues, the Coleman Report failed to accomplish one of the key goals that led Congress to commission the report in the first place – what he called “a forward march” toward equal educational opportunity across racial groups.

“That simply happened haltingly in most parts of the country,” he says.

Original article published Jan. 6, 2015 on