By Nicolas Costa (’18)
An inquiry into the genesis of the racial and socioeconomic academic achievement gap in South Brunswick
Why are there very few African-American or Latino students in South Brunswick’s higher-level classes? Why does it seem that most of these classes are filled almost exclusively with Asian-American students? With any sincere look into South Brunswick’s Advanced Placement and Honors classes, it is apparent that the demographics of these classes are disproportionately dominated by certain ethnic groups. Very few Latino and African-American students find their way into these classes. Why is this the case?
While this discussion is controversial in nature, it is important to discuss the reality of the current situation. This subject is too important to be hidden behind artificial wording. It is an issue that needs to be addressed head-on with the utmost honesty about its reality and effect.
In South Brunswick Public Schools, there seems to be a large disparity between the performances of its various racial groups. On one hand, Asian students tend to find their way into South Brunswick’s advanced programs and classes, such as the Gifted and Talented program and the high school’s advanced courses. On the other hand, Latino and African-American students often find themselves in the “lower” academic brackets. White and Middle-Eastern students, too, are not well represented in advanced programs.
So, why is this happening? One reason may be that district policy, specifically in early elementary school, may directly lead to the disparity in the academic performance among South Brunswick’s racial groups through academic tracking.
Tracking is the term used to describe the separation of students based on perceived academic abilities. Schools that track typically assess students, oftentimes using standardized testing and other criteria to determine class placements. This is most clearly seen in the creation of advanced, on-level, and below-level classes. In South Brunswick’s elementary schools, this can be seen in the accelerated and enriched classes and the Gifted and Talented program.
South Brunswick’s tracking system is unique compared to some neighboring districts. South Brunswick begins tracking as early as kindergarten, though tracking only becomes more apparent in second and third grade. Many neighboring districts, like Princeton and Edison, do not track this early.
It is not that tracking favors certain races inherently, though. Tracking favors students of a higher socioeconomic status. Certain ethnic groups are wealthier than others. Those ethnic groups generally benefit from tracking. The opposite is also true. Tracking disadvantages certain ethnic groups that, on average, earn less.
What We See at SBHS
In order to get an understanding about the diversity, or lack thereof, in South Brunswick’s higher tracks, it is necessary to look into some of the demographics of South Brunswick High School’s advanced and non-advanced classes. For the purposes of this study, advanced classes are defined as classes receiving Advanced Placement or Honors weighting while non-advanced classes are defined as classes not receiving any weighting.
For reference, the Asian population of the whole school is 45.1% while the percent traditional minority population (African Americans and Latinos) in the school is 17.2%, according to Niche. If no socioeconomic bias exists, the composition of the classes should closely mirror the demographics of the school at large.
In an informal, non-scientific survey of an available sample, students were asked to indicate which ethnic category best describes them.
For example, out of the 43 students surveyed in Ms. Lehre’s English IV: College Composition classes, a college-level English class the percent of those who identified as Asian was 86.05% while the traditional minority population was only 2.33%.
Ms. Lehre’s Honors English IV classes followed a similar trend with the Asian population at 87.5% while traditional minorities were only 2.5%.
In sharp contrast, of the 30 students surveyed in Mr. Loh’s English II classes, 10% identified as South Asian, 3.33% as East Asian, 26.66% as Middle Eastern, 26.66% as Caucasian, 10% as Latino, 10% as African American, and 13.33% as mixed race. No students identified as Southeast Asian, Indigenous American, or Pacific Islander. The percent Asian population was 13.33% while the percent traditional minority population was 20%.
Out of the 21 students surveyed in Mr. Wissocki’s AP US Government and Politics class, 52.38% identified as South Asian, 9.52% as East Asian, 4.76% as Southeast Asian, 14.28% as Middle Eastern, 9.52% as Caucasian, 4.76% as Hispanic, and 4.76% as African American. No students identified as mixed race, Indigenous American, or Pacific Islander. The percent Asian population was 66.67% while the percent traditional minority population was 9.52%.
Out of the 26 people surveyed in Mr. Wissocki’s Honors Global Studies class, 69.23% identified as South Asian, 7.69% as East Asian, 3.85% as Southeast Asian, 15.38% as Caucasian, and 3.85% as mixed race. No students identified as Latino, African American, Middle Eastern, Indigenous American, or Pacific Islander. The percent Asian population was 80.77% while the percent traditional minority population was 0%.
Out of the 23 students surveyed in Mr. Burnett’s AP Chemistry class, 86.96% identified as South Asian, 4.35% as East Asian, 4.35% as Caucasian, and 4.35% as Latino. No students identified as Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, African American, mixed race, Indigenous American, or Pacific Islander. The percent Asian population was 91.31% while the percent traditional minority population was 4.35%.
Out of the 39 students surveyed in Mrs. Schayek’s Chemistry I and Chemistry in the Community classes, 25% identified as South Asian, 2.27% as East Asian, 2.27% as Southeast Asian, 6.82% as Middle Eastern, 25% as Caucasian, 11.36% as Latino, and 15.9% as mixed race. No students identified as African American, Indigenous American, or Pacific Islander. The percent Asian population was 29.54% while the percent traditional minority population was 11.36%.
This trend is also seen in elective classes. Out of the 47 people surveyed in Mrs. McGinley’s AP Psychology classes, 70.21% identified as South Asian, 6.38% as East Asian, 8.51% as Caucasian, 2.13% as Middle Eastern, 2.13% as Latino, 2.13% as African American, and 8.51% as mixed race. No students identified as Southeast Asian, Indigenous American, or Pacific Islander. The percent Asian population was 76.59% while the percent traditional minority population was 4.26%.
Out of the 49 surveyed students in Mrs. McGinley’s Introduction to Psychology classes, 20.41% identified as South Asian, 8.16% as East Asian, 2.04% as Southeast Asian, 32.65% as Caucasian, 8.16% as Latino, 12.24% as African American, and 10.2% as mixed race. No students identified as Indigenous American or Pacific Islander. The percent Asian population was 30.61% while the percent traditional minority population was 20.4%.
Out of all of the advanced classes surveyed in my study (200 data points), 71.5% of students identified as South Asian, 8.5% as East Asian, 2% as Southeast Asian, 3.5% as Middle Eastern, 7% as Caucasian, 1.5% as African American, 2% as Latino, and 4% as mixed race. No students identified as Indigenous American or Pacific Islander. The percent Asian population was 82% while the percent traditional minority population was 3.5%.
Out of all the non-advanced classes surveyed in my study (118 data points), 20.34% of students identified as South Asian, 5.10% as East Asian, 1.70% as Southeast Asian, 11.86% as Middle Eastern, 29.66% as Caucasian, 7.63% as African American, 10.17% as Latino, and 13.56% as mixed race. The percent Asian population was 27.14% while the percent traditional minority population was 17.8%.
As evidenced by the data, the highest-earning ethnic group, Asian Americans, is overrepresented in the advanced classes while the lowest-earning groups, African Americans & Latinos, are underrepresented. In the non-advanced classes, Asian students are underrepresented while traditional minority students are represented proportionally to student demographics which may be indicative of socioeconomic bias in favor of wealthier students.
There is a large variation in the income levels of the different ethnic groups. Just how much do the different ethnic groups of South Brunswick make? The national median household income for Asian Americans, according to Statista, is $81,431. For Caucasians, it is $65,041 while it is $47,675 for Latinos and $39,490 for African Americans. For Indian Americans specifically, the median household income is around $101,591, according to the Census Bureau.
It is reasonable to assume that the same trend applies to South Brunswick. According to the Census Bureau, the 2016 poverty rate amongst the South Brunswick African-American population was 6.3%, while for Latinos it was 9.2%. For Asians, it was 3.5% and for Caucasians, it was 4.5%. In South Brunswick, the average Asian American is likely to be wealthier than the average African American or Latino. Exceptions may exist; however, the overall statistics support this notion.
Tracking and Economics
How exactly does tracking favor wealthier students? The criteria used to track and accelerate students often relies heavily on testing and demonstrated knowledge. Wealthier families can afford to send their children to preschool or tutoring services, where they can learn critical math and reading skills earlier than other students. Poorer families cannot afford to do so, so their children are left behind.
According to HASTAC, an educational advocacy organization, “One of the reasons why children achieve good grades in school is because they are in after-school [enrichment] programs. Parents with higher income sign their kids up for the after school [enric hment]. They do this so that their child can learn more throughout the day, not just in school. After-school programs also help children one on one, who are struggling in school. The rich take advantage of these after-school programs.”
Senior Malvika Narayanan, who identifies as Indian American, said, “A lot of times our parents will, like mine, for example, put us in Kumon so we get a leg up on everyone at school, helping us early on. In early elementary school, you can take advanced classes. When they hear about those opportunities, they put us in Kumon and other programs to get us ahead. They have a flawed perception that you have to take the highest course possibly offered to even be considered for a good college.”
Even from an insider’s point of view, this appears to be accurate.
Senior Anagha Kalelkar, who works at Kumon, said, “There are many students there that are not in need of the extra help. They are there only for extra enrichment.”
While, at face value, there is no problem in wanting the best for children, not every family has access to the same resources.
Psychology teacher Mrs. Beth McGinley said, “There are families in South Brunswick, across all races, who are living in poverty, and they’re not thinking about getting their child to do their homework. They’re not sitting with their kids and reading books because they’re out working, trying to provide for their families.”
What may be the most important advantage that wealthier students have is access to preschool. Unlike some other districts, South Brunswick does not provide free preschool to all students. Wealthier families can afford to send their children to preschool, where poorer families generally cannot afford to do so. Children who have gone to preschool, who are generally wealthier, are more likely to be accelerated due to prior exposure to the material.
K-5 Math Curriculum Supervisor Mrs. Jessica Nastasi said, “The importance of early-childhood education is well documented, but this is not always an option for families. Students with these experiences may have an advantage prior to entering kindergarten, simply because they have been exposed to this type of learning, and others haven’t been given the opportunity, but are capable.”
Some might say that the disparity between the races may be due to cultural differences. Specifically, some argue that Asian Americans excel academically because they value education more than others. While there may be some validity to this argument, this variable would not likely account for such an overwhelming difference between the performances of the ethnic groups. It is a little suspicious to suggest that wealthier groups do better than poorer groups due to ethnic values. A more influential variable, income, is clearly present in this situation.
Furthermore, poorer Asian groups perform at lower levels than wealthier Asian groups, suggesting that income is a larger factor than culture. The median household income for Cambodian Americans is much lower than other Asian groups. In 2016, it was $58,391, according to the Census Bureau. Cambodians tend to be poorer due to their lack of education as a result of the slaughter of all educated persons during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. As a result of their poverty, Cambodian Americans tend to perform poorly in academics, especially in comparison to other Asians.
According to PBS, “The Hmong and other Southeast Asian immigrants, including Cambodians, Laotians & Vietnamese, have markedly low college-going rates — especially compared with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans [wealthier Asian groups], who are actually more likely than other Americans to earn bachelor’s degrees.”
Poor Asian groups tend to perform poorly while wealthier Asian groups tend to perform well. Thus, culture is not truly as large of a factor as assumed. Perhaps, many low-earning ethnicities do not value education as much because they do not have the ability nor resources to do so as a result of their poverty. Culture may be a factor, but it is not the deciding factor in academic success. Rather, socioeconomics is a larger factor in this capacity.
South Brunswick Superintendent Mr. Scott Feder agreed that socioeconomics gives students an advantage, though he is skeptical as to whether tracking perpetuates or causes this.
Ultimately, economically disadvantaged students miss out on many educational experiences as a result of being disadvantaged in tracking.
Social Studies teacher Dr. Justin Negraval said, “When I studied tracking for my dissertation, I specifically looked at the way we teach Global Studies at South Brunswick. My research showed me really interesting things about what we do in different tracks… The experience in an honors class is very different from the experience in even an academic class.”
Furthermore, many lower-tracked students are often placed with less experienced teachers.
Dr. Negraval said, “We know through research that students in different tracked classrooms get different kinds of education and are exposed to different topics. Research has suggested that they have ‘better’ teachers, though I don’t know how to necessarily define better. Possibly more experienced teachers wind up teaching more advanced classes. Sometimes, the younger and more novice teachers get thrown in with the lower-tracked classes, so you might have an issue with experience and teachers.”
In addition to having less experienced teachers, lower-tracked students are often exposed to less intellectual stimulation when compared to their higher-tracked counterparts. Their curriculum focuses more on memorization and classwork while higher tracks focus more on critical thinking and deductive and inductive reasoning. When they have the opportunity to move up a level, lower-tracked students are often unprepared.
Elementary tracking is critical because it greatly impacts education down the road. If a student is not accelerated in elementary school, it is very difficult to be accelerated later on. In fact, the only opportunity for acceleration in math beyond elementary school is in sixth and seventh grade. Beyond that, the math curriculum prohibits students from skipping over certain math levels. Thus, tracking this early has a socioeconomic bias because it disproportionately favors wealthier students.
In reference to elementary tracking, 9-12 Math and Science Curriculum Supervisor Mrs. Anna Alfieri said, “It certainly will affect placements down the line because if students are accelerated earlier and they do well at it, they’ll continue to be accelerated… I would hesitate to accelerate kids just because they’ve been pre-taught material because that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re gifted. It’s just that they’ve been pre-exposed to the material. That puts students who might have parents who are able to do that or have the time, money, or resources to do that at an advantage.”
By favoring wealthier students, tracking produces a demographic imbalance in classes. While classes are separated based on perceived ability, the biases in this separation also produce classes that are often separated by ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
According to Dr. Robert Slavin, a psychologist and educational researcher at Johns Hopkins University, “Students shouldn’t be separated for long periods of time in any case. If you had a grouping plan that you were using that caused children to be separated by performance, and it so happened in that school that separating children by performance also separated them by ethnicity or language background or what have you, it would give you a very strong message that this is not a good thing to do.”
Dr. Slavin is correct. This is not the right thing to do. Tracking creates a type of de facto segregation. If South Brunswick continues to have a system that perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequality, then it is playing a direct role in the inequality of the ethnic groups. South Brunswick will be leaving hundreds of students behind over the course of years - students who, if given the opportunity to catch up, may have gone on to achieve greater things.
Tracking is intended to meet the needs of the very few students who may be beyond the curriculum. However, by second and third grade, around 5-10% of a grade is accelerated. By the end of elementary school, nearly a fourth of a grade is tracked. Tracking in South Brunswick is not just accelerating the few little “Einsteins;” rather, South Brunswick is tracking a large portion of each grade.
The Psychological Implications
Tracking also has grave psychological implications because it creates inferiority and superiority complexes in students through implicitly communicating messages regarding expectations. Elementary schoolers are very impressionable. By splitting them up based on academic ability, the children are being told that certain students are expected to achieve more than others, and vice-versa. Adding on to this, kids talk. Some kids may bully others for being on a lower track.
This leads lower-tracked students to develop feelings of inferiority, oftentimes believing that they are not as smart as their peers. Down the line, this will discourage them from competing with their peers as they have been implicitly told that society has lowered expectations for them. This ultimately leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy or learned helplessness that keeps many lower-tracked students from ever getting out of their track.
Several studies affirm this notion. In the Jane Elliot blue eyes-brown eyes study, teacher Jane Elliot told her students that blue-eyed people are smarter and superior to brown-eyed people. In cognitive tests conducted on that same day, her blue-eyed students greatly outperformed her brown-eyed students. The next day, she told her students that she lied and brown-eyed students are actually smarter and superior to blue-eyed students. In the same tests, brown-eyed students then outperformed the blue-eyed students.
Mrs. McGinley said of the study, “It showed that when we perceive ourselves to be superior, we improve academically… When we find that we are considered less intelligent, we tend to perform worse.”
Perhaps even the supposed academic achievement gap is completely arbitrary. When Elliot switched the roles, the previously “dumber” students suddenly outperformed the “smarter” ones. Some students may only be achieving certain benchmarks because they’ve been encouraged to, with the opposite also being true.
Other studies demonstrate the same concept. Researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson studied the effects of expectations in their study “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” In their study, the researchers administered a bogus IQ test to a classroom. They then chose five students at random and informed the teacher that those students were due for an “academic blossoming,” according to their test results. After subsequent testing months later, those same students began to score markedly better than their peers, despite those students being chosen at random and their “advanced” status being unknown to them. The researchers concluded that a teacher’s expectations of a student may affect his or her performance.
“It’s a phenomenon where higher expectations lead to an increase in performance… If the teacher believes that you have a certain skill level, they may talk to you in a different way. They may interact with you in a way that is always pushing you. The teacher may not even be aware of it. This can even affect our own expectations. If we know that we are capable, or the teacher makes us think we are capable, we are going to push ourselves to achieve more. If you have an unconscious belief, you unknowingly make it come to fruition… It can work both in the positive and negative,” said Mrs. McGinley.
Is Tracking Accurate?
Besides the psychological implications, there are also questions as to whether the current criteria used to track students accurately measure a student’s academic predisposition.
Currently, elementary tracking in math is based on the results of an end-of-year math test and a matrix of criteria assessed by a teacher. However, only after students receive a qualifying score, the school uses a student matrix, which includes variables such as work ethic, initiation of own mathematical questions, and cooperation.
The first step in order to even be considered for acceleration is achieving a certain test score, though it is important to note that borderline candidates are still taken into consideration. Tracking criteria may not truly be accurate to determining academic aptitude; rather, it may be more effective in determining exposure and experience. Thus, the criteria used to accelerate students has a socioeconomic bias as it is heavily based on test results, which can improve with experience and exposure - things that are more accessible to the wealthier students.
Mrs. Alfieri said, in reference to the exposure to material leading to acceleration, “That definitely is a concern because you can teach kids to do things that they don’t truly understand very early. They can follow patterns and steps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand what they’re doing… Accelerating them because they’ve been exposed to the material doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand it.”
Comparison with Detracked Districts
Many school districts do not begin tracking as early as South Brunswick. Princeton, for instance, begins its tracking in seventh grade.
There is data that suggests that the gap between wealthy and poor students at schools that track later is much narrower than schools that track early, like South Brunswick. Specifically, this can be seen in data from The New Jersey Department of Education, which assesses students and publishes information regarding their performance.
According to their data, for the 2016-17 school year, 87% of Asian fifth graders met or exceeded ELA testing expectations in South Brunswick while only 48% of Hispanic students did the same, making the percentage gap 39%. At Princeton 94% of Asian fifth-graders met or exceeded expectations while 76% of Hispanic students did the same, making the gap much lower at 18%. For fifth-grade math, the results are similar. The Asian-Hispanic gap in South Brunswick fifth grade math is 61% while it is only 30% at Princeton.
The Department of Education also provides data as to how economically non-disadvantaged students compare to economically disadvantaged students, which is perhaps more relevant. The gap between these two economic groups at South Brunswick in fifth grade math was 52% while at Princeton it was 36%. Down the line, the ELA gap between both economic groups in South Brunswick in eighth grade was 34% while at Princeton it was 21%. After years of tracking, the poorer students in South Brunswick stray further and further from their wealthier counterparts. At Princeton, this effect is lessened.
Edison Township also does not track until middle school. The district has a somewhat comparable demographic composition to South Brunswick. Right out of elementary school, the sixth grade ELA gap in South Brunswick between the two economic groups was 49% while in Edison it was 38%.
This same trend can also be seen in fifth grade math. The gap between the economic groups in South Brunswick was 52% while in Edison it was 41%. In third grade ELA, the gap between the economic groups in South Brunswick was 51% while in Edison it was 39%. In third grade math, South Brunswick’s gap was 54% while Edison’s was 44%.
This is just a small selection of data. There may be a trend; however, not all of the data from the NJ Department of Education falls within this trend.
Certainly, there will almost always be a disparity between wealthy and poor students.
However, many schools that track later have seen this gap lessen, giving more opportunities to disadvantaged students.
Poorer students are not given the opportunity to catch up to their wealthier peers. From the moment students step foot in a South Brunswick school, they are categorized and assessed. Elementary students are placed on tracks that are very hard to get out of. Instead of tracking in elementary school, the district should give students the opportunity to catch up with one another, equalizing the playing field and ensuring that all students are given fair and equal opportunities.
Tracking should not be abolished altogether, but elementary tracking should be. It is ultimately harmful to the student body as it generally sets up wealthier students for academic success while excluding poorer students. Educational tracking is simply wrong at such an early age.
The good news is that district administration is listening and open to change. Mr. Feder and senior staff plan to conduct further research on the topic and possibly review and revise district policy.
In the words of Principal Peter Varela:
“The quote I always share, and it’s based on Dr. McCartney, our former superintendent, is, ‘the biggest room in any organization is the room for improvement.’ Dr. McCartney used that quote by Abraham Lincoln to say that we should never just settle. We should always look to the future and look to improve our ways and learn from other school districts… this way, we support all of our students and all of our staff. Education is critical.”