Study ties ‘achievement gap’ to racial disparities in school discipline

Disparities in school discipline are estimated to account for about one-fifth of the “achievement gap” between white students and black students in U.S. schools, according to a recent study co-authored by an Indiana University Bloomington sociologist.

The study, “The Punishment Gap: School Suspension and Racial Disparities in Achievement,” was published in the journal Social Problems. Brea Perry, associate professor of sociology in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, is co-author with University of Kentucky sociologist Edward Morris.

Brea Perry

Brea Perry

Using student disciplinary records and test scores from an urban school district, the researchers show that black students were significantly more likely than white students to be suspended from school. And they found that students who were suspended were likely to fall behind in achievement.

Their conclusion: The difference in the degree to which black and white students are disciplined — which they refer to as the “punishment gap” — is a crucial but under-examined factor in explaining unequal test scores, the so-called achievement gap. It accounted for 20 percent of the difference between white and black students in reading scores and 17 percent of the difference in math scores.

“If you want to think about interventions or policies for reducing the achievement gap,  our research suggests that reducing the punishment gap is a good place to start,” Perry said.

Previous research, including studies by Indiana University education professor Russell Skiba, has shown that students of color face more frequent suspensions and expulsions than others, with black students likely to receive harsher discipline than white students even when they committed the same offenses.

It also is well established that being suspended can cause students to disengage from school and to struggle academically and socially. But the current study is the first to take a comprehensive look at the relationship between suspension and student achievement.

The study examined longitudinal data for over 16,000 students in grades 6 to 10 attending 17 schools in a Kentucky school district. Black students in the sample were much more likely than white students to be suspended from school. Socioeconomic status, family structure and other factors beyond school control accounted for some of the discrepancy, but not all of it.

Students who were suspended were likely to already be behind their peers academically. But after being suspended one or more times, they fell further behind on measures of achievement such as standardized test scores.

“Particularly for African American students in our data, the unequal suspension rate is one of the most important factors hindering academic progress and maintaining the racial gap in achievement,” Morris and Perry write.

The study shines a light on the impact of “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, developed in the 1990s, that led to higher rates of suspension and expulsion, often with students of color and students in high-poverty schools more likely to be disciplined. In recent years, activists have highlighted unequal school discipline as a civil rights issue, and the U.S. Department of Education has urged schools to find alternatives to suspension and expulsion.

“I think that, by truly identifying the magnitude of the problem, you can get people to wake up and pay attention to these issues,” Perry said. “Twenty percent of the difference, that’s a lot.”

In the school district that provided the data for the study, seeing the results did make a difference, Perry said. The district implemented a comprehensive alternative-to-suspension program. In at least one school, the number of suspensions dropped significantly, and academic performance improved.

But nationally, there is plenty of evidence suggesting schools have a long way to go to close the punishment gap. Just this week, the U.S. Department of Education released data showing that black preschool children were 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white preschoolers.

“A lot of schools are trying to address the problem with a focus on high schools,” Perry said. “But at that point it may be too late. Some of those students have been suspended multiple times, and the bond with school has already been broken.”

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