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One of the most compelling arguments for ending racial preferences in college admissions – a demand that the Supreme Court will address in two high-profile cases – also seems to be one of the most depressing. As some opponents of such affirmative action programs contend (according to what I’ve heard on some cable talk shows), anyone truly interested in helping students from disadvantaged communities climb the education and therefore career success ladders would focus on improving the grade and high schools that are supposed to be preparing them for college, rather than on awarding higher education opportunities to those who don’t qualify according to race-blind criteria.

It’s depressing because for so long Americans have seemed unable to “fix the schools.” So ending or at least thoroughly weakening affirmative action in higher education, even if Constitutionally prohibited, looks like a recipe for perpetuating racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

Except that some impressive evidence has just emerged showing that primary and secondary schools have succeeded in bringing African American and Latino student test scores closer to white test scores. It comes from the latest edition of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP – “the nation’s report card”).

The NAEP is incredibly data-rich, but one set of findings I regard as especially revealing were those presenting the shares of different racial and ethnic groups performing at or above the level viewed as “proficient” by NAEP. (Here’s a starting point for this section of the report card.) The results go back to 1990 for math and 1992 for reading, and through 2019 for both. Therefore, they show both trends over time and changes achieved in the roughly three decades before the pandemic and related school closings struck – and set back everyone. I chose proficiency as a standard versus “NAEP Basic” because it figures that the proficient students are those likeliest to attend or want to attend college.

It would have been great to describe not only the scores for fourth and eighth graders in reading and math, but for high school seniors. Unfortunately, those data only cover the short 2015-2019 period.

Here’s how the shares of white, African American, and Latino fourth graders who have been math-proficient has changed from 1990-2019:

White: 16 percent-52 percent

African American: 1 percent-20 percent

Latino: 5 percent-28 percent


Here are the same type of math figures for eighth graders:

White: 18 percent-44 percent

African American: 5 percent-14 percent

Latino: 7 percent-20 percent


And now the results for reading proficiency among fourth graders from 1992-2019:

White: 35 percent-45 percent

African American: 8 percent-18 percent

Latino: 12 percent-23 percent


And for eighth graders:

White: 35 percent-42 percent

African American: 9 percent-15 percent

Latino: 13 percent-22 percent

It’s clear that in every single case above, African American and Latino scores significantly lag white scores both at the beginning of the time periods examined and at the end. But it’s also clear that in evey single case above, the scores for both minority groups improved at a faster rate than those for white students.

Yes, there’s a baseline effect at work everywhere – that is, when the figure for a comparison year is very low, it’s going to be much easier to generate bigger percentage changes than for a comparison year that’s much higher. But in this instance, what seems most important to me is that bigger is indeed bigger, and undeniably encouraging.

The remaining racial and ethnic gaps remain disturbing, but two other recent findings indicate that faster progress is anything but a pipe dream. First, the U.S. Defense Department runs its own very big school system. In fact, the NAEP compares it to a U.S. state. And even though many of its students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they’ve been outperforming their “civilian” counterparts for many years in reading and math at both the fourth grade and eighth grade levels. (Twelfth grade data aren’t available for this group.) So maybe the military has long known something about education that it could teach the rest of us?

Or maybe these schools function well because they place disadvantaged kids out of neighborhoods whose many and varied troubles create terrible learning environments? As it happens, there’s some strong evidence for that proposition, too. In other words, as a Washington Post education columnist has put it, the best way to help low-income (including of course minority) students isn’t to try making their local schools better, but to move them into better schools.

Of course, that kind of policy shift would open up a whole can of related “white flight”and “school busing” and housing-segregation worms that have sparked numerous racial conflicts in recent decades – even in liberal cities like New York and Boston. But that only reenforces a conclusion about American attitudes toward making sure that none of our country-men and women are left behind: Too often, failure or inadequate progress stems not from lack of resources or of knowledge, but of will.