When the Gender Gap Meets the Racial Gap

gender_gapby James A. Bacon

When remarking upon disparities in educational outcomes, most pundits focus on the racial/ethnic gap between Asians and whites on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other. That’s no surprise, given the distressing size of the gap and the dismal implications of that gap for the prospects for forging a society in which every child has an equal shot at succeeding in life. But there’s another gap, not quite as large, but equally pervasive — the gender gap. Girls out-perform boys academically across the board. Combine the gender gap with the ethnic/racial gap, and that spells very bad news for the upcoming generation of black males.

To examine the dimensions of this gap, I used Virginia’s awesome “SOL Assessment Build a Table” tool that allows users to take a deep dive into the data. I compared male vs female pass and fail rates on reading, writing, history, math and science SOLs across all schools and grades, then broke down the gender disparities by racial/ethnic group to see if the disparities were worse for some groups than others. The chart above shows the male-female gap — the difference between the percentage of females who passed the the percentage of males who passed. Here’s the detailed data.

The most striking pattern is that boys fail SOLs at a higher rate than girls in every subject area. The gap is greatest for writing and reading and smallest for history/social science and science. Some sub-groups of boys marginally out-perform girls in science but the difference is small. Generally speaking, the performance gap for “advanced,” as opposed to simple “proficiency” accentuates girls’ academic superiority, with science and history/social sciences the main exceptions.

Another broad conclusion is that the gender gap is narrowest among whites and Asians, and the most glaring among blacks and American-Indians. Statewide, more than 45% of all black males fail the writing SOLs; nearly 43% fail the math SOLs. Without question, the fact that so many blacks are economically disadvantaged plays a role here. But the under-performance of black males is so strong that other factors undoubtedly come into play.

The difference cannot be explained by the distribution of blacks in “bad” schools and other races in “good” schools. Larry Gross has compared the SOL pass rates for economically disadvantaged whites and blacks (not distinguishing between gender) in Henrico County elementary schools and the pattern remains depressingly the same in school after school. (See his data run here.)

I’m sure people can provide many different explanations for the academic plight of Virginia’s black males. Some will argue that institutional racism runs deeper than we ever imagined. I am more inclined to attribute the gap to different cultural attitudes and family structures among ethnic/racial groups, although I am open to the argument that both institutional and cultural factors may be at work. Whatever the explanation, we need to get to the bottom of it. In a technology-driven knowledge economy in which education is more critical than ever to attaining a middle-class lifestyle, it is frightening to think that half the black males going through school today are fated to live at the economic margins.

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19 responses to “When the Gender Gap Meets the Racial Gap”

  1. Jim, I can only thank you for this analysis, whose depressing conclusions we need to digest. My sense is that all the factors you mention are at play, making the problem exceedingly complex, but with policy focus necessary and, if maintained over a generation, potentially successful. Cultural factors are, of course, the least amenable to change, and we see that in a host of places and among many ethnic groups here and abroad. But early childhood education, expenditures on child care, would help if the momentum is maintained through at least the middle school. The point is to work in the right direction, because things can always get worse. As it is, we haven’t calculated the cost of this problem, other than in terms of our prison population, etc. The opportunity costs of neglecting the education of black African Americans is obviously huge.

  2. we’re talking past each other a bit but look at these three schools in the same district for reading SOLS:

    Elizabeth Hockaday – white pass rate 68%
    black pass rate 55%

    Fair Oaks white pass rate 77%
    black pass rate 45%

    Glen Allen white pass rate 77%
    black pass rate 53%

    note the disparity not only between races but between schools

    now look at Jackson Davis white pass rate 85%
    black pass rate 86%

    now tell me again about

    “different cultural attitudes and family structures among ethnic/racial groups”

    how do you explain this now if you know it’s possible to not have the gap?

    it HAS to be the school… right?

    What does Jackson Davis do that the other schools do not?

    bonus question – do we want to confirm our biases or do we want the truth?

    1. Good question: What does Jackson Davis do that other schools do not?

      Jackson Davis seems to be an outlier — but it’s one that provides hope. The black pass rates are exceptionally high. One way to approach the problem is to look at the outliers and see what makes them different.

    2. Glen Allen (CDP) demographics:

      “The racial makeup of the CDP was 74.92% White, 19.54% African American, 0.41% Native American, 3.08% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 0.80% from other races, and 1.18% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.73% of the population.”

      Tuckahoe (CDP) demographics:

      “The racial makeup of the CDP was 88.79% White, 5.78% African American, 0.17% Native American, 3.43% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.67% from other races, and 1.13% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.13% of the population.”

      Families in Tuckahoe make about $5,000 per year more then in Glen Allen. I am guessing that Tuckahoe has less of an income disparity as well. Beyond that, the small percentage of African Americans living in the district that feeds Jackson Davis makes any one year tough to draw statistically valid conclusions (assuming students at the school mirror the overall population demographics).

      There are a lot of useful facts here – http://www.prb.org/pdf10/single-motherfamilies.pdf

      1. not sure if CDP matches up with school boundaries but it’s on the right rack on the issue of numbers – of blacks, of whites and economically disadvantaged – for a particular school if any of the 3 are low numbers – the pass fail results can be skewed – i.e. lack fidelity – to which I think DonR is alluding.

        here’s how you have to find out that 40% of the 640 students is minority and 25% is economically disadvantaged:


        you still don’t know if the economically disadvantaged is spread evenly between black and white or concentrated .

        you don’t get this info on the state DOE neither report cards or build a table, or the Henrico county websites even though the data has to be reported to the Feds and then 3rd party entities get that data and publish it.

  3. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    As Larry continues to expand his search criteria, he seems to be making a point that there are differences between schools within the same division. Maybe it is time to also talk about the elephant in this discussion, the educators.
    Many on the right suggest it is time to test the teachers and base their pay upon student achievement. Isn’t it possible than some minority students do better with minority teachers and that males do better with male educators?
    I read somewhere that a school division (not in Virginia) was thinking about re-segregating their schools so as to improve all student’s performances.

    1. not sure the point… sometimes I’m thickheaded.

  4. well, I’m not really expanding the search – I’m focusing on the data and I’m betting that Jackson Davis is not the only “outlier”. I ran up on it just skimming over the Henrico data .. there are a hundred more other districts.

    In terms of teacher performance – don’t you need to also look at teacher qualifications and experience and how staffing is done at each school?

    What you’d likely going to find is that the teachers with the poorest performance are the new right-out-of-school teachers thrown into one of the worst performing schools with the toughest-to-teach kids.

    Why would you do about that? Fire that teacher and replace them with another new one?

    and at that point – is the issue the teacher or how the district staffs the schools with new teachers?

    See, I don’t see the better performing schools as “outliers”. I see them as potential models for the ones that are failing…

    we focus blame on the ones that fail and ignore the one’s that don’t?

    sounds pretty one-sided to me – and preordained to assume failure as the default.

    so I challenge Jim to find out – rather than how schools fail – how the one that succeeded – did succeed.

    how about it?

  5. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    I hope you have directed that at JB and not JW.
    I would offer this comment to Larry.
    The original thread was a discussion about the SOL passing rates between Black and White students by division. JB expanded that to include gender. You have chosen to expand the discussion to the individual schools, individual grades, individual test subject and individual characteristics and sub groups of all the schools you choose to analyze. While you are looking through to the weeds, even down to the roots, you may be missing the forest and the trees.
    When I have looked at my local schools and have seen numbers that seem unexplainable, I then find out that a teacher took a medical leave, the substitute didn’t do as well as the regular teacher, and all of a sudden the 4th grade reading class didn’t test as well as the 3rd grade did the previous year.
    I cannot speak for JB but my interest and commentary are more general in nature.

    1. I appreciate your comments Hill City Jim – but here’s what I read:

      ” I’m sure people can provide many different explanations for the academic plight of Virginia’s black males. Some will argue that institutional racism runs deeper than we ever imagined. I am more inclined to attribute the gap to different cultural attitudes and family structures among ethnic/racial groups, although I am open to the argument that both institutional and cultural factors may be at work. ”

      now my view is – if you are going to tread into this territory – where you are attributing reasons to the performance issues – then I believe if you just focus on one aspect and ignore the other – then you’re not really trying to understand the issue but instead confirm a bias.

      My take on this is that academic performance looked at – at the state level – is misleading because if you look at the schools in the districts – you will see that the aggregate top-level data is not an accurate portrayal of the disparities between schools in the district.

      I’m not willing to discard culture or other social issues but I do not think they are the sole cause of the gap – because I see some schools with better scores and some with worse scores and that would call into question the idea of a “culture” varying between individual schools in a district.

      I grant you your view – I think mine is on point and valid also.

      I do not agree when we talk about racial academic gaps – and posit that “cultural” factors are behind it – that – that is a “general” discussion worthy of merit. There are clearly other factors in play including the fact that individual schools do vary and we see disparity in black passing rates between schools in the same district.

      do you not think that is relevant to the issue?

      Perhaps I misunderstand you but it feels like you want to control the discussion .. please correct my wrong impression if that is the case.

      I’d like to find peace with you – let’s try.


  6. A comment from a correspondent who asked not to be identified:

    I was reading your blog and saw what was mentioned about Jackson Davis. My grandchildren go to that school. … I don’t want to write this on your blog because I don’t want to perpetuate some demographic information I can’t back up with statistics, but what I do know is that a number of the blacks that go to that school are first generation from other countries – especially from African countries where the parents escaped as refugees. My grandchildren are friends with some of these kids because the families are living the same lives – homeowners, working hard to make a success here, educating their children, the families all know and speak English, etc. – they are just like all of the immigrants arriving from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries – wanting a better life for themselves and very appreciative of the opportunity to live in America. …

    1. looking at the sub-group categories – perhaps Limited English and Economically Disadvantaged but the problem is, again, with the numbers.

      In a school of 640 students – are we talking about 5-10 immigrants or 30-40 ? Does that translate out to one or two per classroom?

      without numbers tied to the groups – we really don’t know.

      You actually have to go to other sources for that basic information as neither the school districts nor DOE provide the info – the same info they report to the Feds and 3rd parties then access and publish:


      it appears that 40% or 256 kids spread over 6 grades are minorities (to include native and immigrant blacks).

      and – that 160 in Davis are economically disadvantaged – but we don’t know how that is allocated between whites and blacks – much less immigrants.

      but take a look at one grade – Third (first grade that tests SOLs) – where there are 117 kids according to the DOE report card.

      that probably translates out to 5 or 6 third grade classrooms of 20-25 kids each.

      Is each one of those classrooms fairly representative of the aggregate school demographics with respect to minorities and economically disadvantaged or does the school tend to group according to demographics?

      when you see a gap between white and black – is that gap pretty much the same for each class or varies because of “grouping”?

      For instance are the economically disadvantaged equally dispersed or are they concentrated in one or two classes – and the class as a whole scores lower (or higher)? Are the teachers of all classes, all veterans skilled in teaching at-risk or are there new teachers in the mix?

      Do new teachers get the easier-to-teach or the harder-to-teach?

      these are all variables that are in play – that we have no clue about – and those in education or close friends of educations – know some of these answers. Some schools group one way and others group different ways. It’s a job the principal spends time during the summer prior to school beginning where the class attendance sheets are given out to teachers and the teachers have to start deciding how to configure the class and coordinate with reading and math specialist for the kids with deficits.

      WE DO KNOW that SOME SCHOOLS in Va – have much smaller gaps in performance – better than other schools in the same school district – and not just one year – year after year – even as new students come into the school.

      That makes it pretty hard to posit sweeping generalizations if you actually don’t know the underlying data – and that would apply to both good and bad generalizations. For instance, on the better performing schools – you don’t know how the kids and resources are allocated and matched – either.

      I’m just skeptical that if you have neighborhoods with similar demographics with minorities and economically disadvantaged that are split into two attendance zones – that the two schools might have such different academic performance due to “culture” or single-parent issues.

      In order to believe that – it seems that you’d have to believe that the “culture” of SOME minorities and economically disadvantaged – actually vary by neighborhood/attendance zone.

      and the operative word – lacking actual data to support such ideas is “believe” and what exactly would motivate one to “believe” – “culture” as having a role – or not – if you truly don’t have the data to show it?

      More than that – how would you then – based on “belief” rather than data – propose societal policy changes (for instance – trying to change one parent behaviors)?

      I think you have to WANT TO KNOW the data – to convince yourself with REAL EVIDENCE of what the actual realities are.. if you think the problem is with – “bad teachers” or “bad parents”.

      and that’s been the point I’ve tried to make here.

      the truth is much more likely that really crappy minority educations then lead to unemployment that lead to dealing illegal drugs, cigarettes, etc that lead to prison – that then lead to one parent families with the Mom not have the benefit of a Dad to contribute to income or maintain a parental presence at home.

      what would be your policy proposals if that turned out to be the truth?

      fire “bad” teachers or blame the kid whose dad got sent to prison?

  7. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    “Perhaps I misunderstand you but it feels like you want to control the discussion .. please correct my wrong impression if that is the case.”

    This from a blogger that logs 70-80% of all commentary.

    1. true. guilty as charged.

      does that keep you from saying what you want? And why would you, for any reason, want to limit others?

      get to the issue guy – what is the real problem?

  8. Hill City Jim Avatar
    Hill City Jim

    ” And why would you, for any reason, want to limit others?

    It seems to me that it is YOU that wishes to limit others!

    “Perhaps I misunderstand you but it feels like you want to control the discussion .. please correct my wrong impression if that is the case.”

    Lighten up dude.

    1. ditto back at ya – Hill City… … I thought we already WERE “lightened up” til I heard your complaint…! and it was not the first time either!


      advice for those tormented by boring blowhards – ignore it and move on and make your points.

      easy to do…

  9. Statistics like these show that there is bias in the educational system (or in the testing methodology) against males, and that can explain a good deal of the disparity between groups.

    If females from the same type of family, same area, same ethnic group, and same wealth consistently perform better than males with the same characteristics (except for gender), that indicates that the educational system as it is currently arranged either favors females, or it is failing males. If you look at college admissions at our most prestigious public universities, the bias at the highest levels of achievement is especially clear. The explanation surely isn’t that “boys” are lazy or inattentive – isn’t that what the educational system has always said about the children it has failed?

    1. I found something that may be of interest to those reading this thread:

      Virginia Elementary School Rankings


      you’ll find the top scoring elementary schools in Va along with the racial demographics and the percent of free/reduce lunch.

      and as usual – I’m always astounded at just how much data is generated and apparently available to 3rd party organizations but not reported by DOE or the local school systems.

      The top 20 elementary schools in Va (according to this site) are concentrated in NoVa. Henrico and Chesterfield (and Roanoke) but do take a look at the racial demographics.

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