A new study published in AERA Open investigates whether and to what extent racial discipline gaps are associated with racial achievement gaps in grades three through eight in school districts across the U.S. It also examines if these relationships persist after accounting for differences across districts.
The researchers combined data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), which contains achievement gap information for about 2,000 school districts nationwide, and the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). They gathered achievement data from the SEDA and disciplinary data from the CRDC for the 2011–12 and 2013–14 school years, since these were the only two years for which a CRDC census of all U.S. public schools overlapped available SEDA data. They measured racial achievement gaps as district-level disparities between Hispanic and black students and their white counterparts, based on states’ math and English language arts standardized-test-score data. They used suspension counts by race for public schools that include any grade from third to eighth to measure the difference in out-of-school suspension rates between minority and white students.
Their key finding is that discipline and achievement data are indeed positively correlated for black and white students. A 1 percentage point increase in the black-white discipline gap is associated with a 0.01 standard deviation increase in the black-white achievement gap, and a 1 standard deviation increase in the achievement gap is associated with a 2.2 percentage point increase in the discipline gap. Put simply, districts with larger black-white discipline gaps have larger black-white achievement gaps, and vice versa.
Socioeconomic differences between black and white students could serve as one possible explanation for this result. That is, in districts where black students are much poorer than white students, on average, black students have both lower test scores and higher suspension rates. Although the authors do control for district-level racial disparities in the percentage of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch, it is doubtful that the socioeconomic data they had at their disposal could fully account for differences in family income by race.
Furthermore, the association between the black-white achievement and discipline gaps is partly explained by the tight coupling of achievement and discipline for black students specifically, who experience higher suspension rates in districts with larger achievement gaps and experience higher achievement in districts that suspend them less frequently. Because this tight coupling is absent among white students, the authors suspect that the mechanisms connecting achievement and discipline—e.g., teacher biases, peer effects, feelings of belonging—are more salient for black than white students.
While there is some evidence that Hispanic-white discipline gaps are positively related to Hispanic-white achievement gaps, this correlation did not hold after the inclusion of community-level characteristics (e.g., unemployment rate, college degrees held, median income) and district-level characteristics (e.g., percentage of English language learners, racial segregation, gifted and talented racial gap). In other words, the fact that the Hispanic-white achievement gap is wider in districts with bigger Hispanic-white discipline gaps is not due to the racial discipline gap, but rather to other differences between school districts.
This is the first rigorous empirical study to explicitly examine the relation between the racial achievement gap and the racial discipline gap on a national scale. Of course, the finding that there is an association between the achievement and discipline gaps for black and white students but not Hispanic and white students is purely descriptive, not causal. And because the analyses rely on data spanning grades three through eight, the results cannot be generalized to earlier or later grades. Still, the study sheds light on these racial intersections and offers hope in its implication that interventions aimed to close one black-white gap may have the potential to influence the other.
SOURCE: Francis A. Pearman II, F. Chris Curran, Benjamin Fisher, and Joseph Gardella, “Are Achievement Gaps Related to Discipline Gaps? Evidence From National Data,” AERA Open (October–December 2019).