Falling Behind

A couple of years ago, I read a paper by Roland Fryer and Steve Levitt (non-technical version here), which found that the black-white test score gap in the US widened after children hit school.* With my colleague Xiaodong Gong, we decided to look at the issue in Australia. Since we only have one study on test score gaps at a very young age, we have to compare our results with the existing literature. But the finding is still pretty dramatic. It suggests that when Indigenous children start primary school, they are about one year behind their non-Indigenous peers. By the time they finish primary school, Indigenous children are are about two years behind non-Indigenous children.

Admittedly, there are some caveats. The tests we look at are vocabulary, drawing and writing tests administered to children at ages 4-5 (if you watched the ABC TV show Life at One, you may have seen children taking these tests). We have to assume that they’re measuring the same underlying abilities as literacy and numeracy tests. And we’re comparing across different populations, rather than tracking the same children. But bearing these limitations in mind, it does suggest that policies targeted at school-aged children might help to close the Indigenous/non-Indigenous test score gap in Australia. 

Our abstract is below. Click on the title to read the full paper.

Estimating Cognitive Gaps Between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians (with Xiaodong Gong)
Improving cognitive skills of young children has been suggested as a possible strategy for equalising opportunities across racial groups. Using data on 4-5 year olds in the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Children, we focus on two cognitive tests: the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and the ‘Who Am I?’ test (WAI). We estimate the test score gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children to be about 0.3 to 0.4 standard deviations, suggesting that the typical Indigenous 5 year-old has a similar test score to the typical non-Indigenous 4 year-old. Between one-third and two-thirds of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous test score gap appears to be due to socio-economic differences, such as income and parental education. We review the literature on test score differences in Australia, and find that our estimated gaps are lower than most of those found in the literature. This implies that the test score gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children may widen over the lifecycle, a finding that has implications for policies aimed at improving educational opportunities for Indigenous children.

* For those particularly interested in the US debate, it’s also worth reading a closely related paper by Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin. 

Update: Media coverage in the Age and the Australian.

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