The Black-White College Literacy Gap

Achievement gaps between black and white high school students are discouraging but all too common facts of education life. It's well known that black students are less likely than their white peers to graduate from high school, and score lower on tests like the SAT and the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Far less attention has been paid to gaps in higher education. A new study of college student literacy suggests that black-white gaps not only persist into college, but may become even larger by the time students finish their degree.

Released in January 2006 by the American Institutes for Research, the study assessed the literacy of 1,827 graduating seniors from 80 randomly-selected 2- and 4-year colleges and universities. Students were tested for three types of literacy:

  • "Prose" (comprehending and using information from texts such as news stories and editorials)
  • "Document" (comprehending and using information from documents such as job applications, maps, and food labels)
  • "Quantitative" (identifying and performing computations with data from printed materials such as order forms and interest rate schedules)

Scores were translated into four levels: "Below Basic," "Basic," "Intermediate," and "Proficient." To be proficient in prose literacy, for example, a student would have to successfully compare the viewpoints of two newspaper editorials. Proficient document literacy might mean interpreting a table about blood pressure and physical activity, while proficient quantitative literacy could include computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items.

As the chart shows, there were dramatic differences in proficiency between black and white students. White proficiency rates in prose and document literacy were more than double that of black students, and eight times higher for quantitative literacy (all differences were statistically significant).

Similarly, there were large differences in the percent of college seniors with no more than "Basic" levels of literacy, with far more black students scoring at low levels than white. A student with only basic document literacy, for example, would be unable to identify a specific location on a map.

By some comparisons, these gaps for college seniors are largerthan black-white gaps for high school seniors. For example, 69 percent of white 17 year-olds scored 300 or above (mastery of "moderately complex procedures and reasoning") on the most recent NAEP mathematics test, compared to 26 percent of black 17 year-olds. That means that white students are 2.7 times more likely than black students to hit the mark in high school math, but 8.0 times more likely to be proficient in quantitative literacy at the end of college.

Gaps in NAEP reading scores, by contrast, were very similar to the college literacy gaps, with 45 percent of white high school seniors scoring at 300 or above, compared to 17 percent of black students—exactly the same percentages as document literacy in college.

These results should be interpreted with caution. The high school NAEP and college literacy assessments are different tests that measure different things. Colleges and universities are supposed to give their students a broad range of knowledge, perspectives and skills, only a fraction of which are represented in a test of practical literacy. Readers should also be cautious in associating black literacy with the nation's Historical Black Colleges and Universities, since most black collegians don't attend HBCUs.

But these results are undeniably disturbing. In working to improve college opportunities for black students, policymakers have historically focused on issues like access, affordability, and affirmative action. People worked to give minority students the chance to attend college, on the assumption that once they got there they would be okay. The new literacy data—along with reports that fewer than 4 in 10 black students graduate from college on time—suggest otherwise. When nearly half of all black college seniors at 4-year institutions demonstrate no more than basic levels of quantitative literacy—skills commonly associated with high school graduates, at best—hard questions must asked about how well our colleges and universities are serving students of color, and what they will do to improve.

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Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy program at New America.