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Collective Racial Bias and the Black-White Test Score Gap

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Anti-black bias is an important focal point in conversations about the sources of racial inequality in schools. Much of the empirical research on this issue has focused on the racial biases of individual teachers, finding that racial inequality in student outcomes is generally worse when teachers have more racial bias. Less is known, however, about how racial inequality in schools relates to anti-black biases that play out at a larger scale within communities. This study begins to fill this gap by examining the relationship between county-level estimates of racial bias and black-white test score gaps in U.S. schools. Data from over 1 million respondents from across the United States who completed an online survey of explicit and implicit racial attitudes were combined with data from the Education Opportunity Project covering over 300 million test scores from U.S. schoolchildren in grades 3 through 8. Results indicated that counties with higher levels of racial bias had larger black-white test score disparities. The magnitude of these associations was on par with other widely accepted predictors of racial test score gaps, including racial gaps in family income and racial gaps in single parenthood. This study also found that the observed relation between collective rates of racial bias and racial test score gaps was largely accounted for when controlling for between-school segregation and racial gaps in discipline, gifted assignment, and special education placement. This pattern is consistent with a theoretical model in which collective rates of racial bias relate to educational opportunity through sorting mechanisms that operate both within and beyond schools.

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  1. For critiques of the reliability and predictive validity of implicit bias, see Greenwald et al. (2009) and Arkes and Tetlock (2004). Moreover, prior work has suggested that measures of implicit racial bias can proxy an individual’s awareness that a social group faces discrimination rather than the degree to which an individual harbors anti-black bias (see Uhlmann et al., 2006). Nevertheless, substantive conclusions from the current study are consistent across implicit and explicit measures of racial bias, indicating that findings transcend any single concern about the measurement and operationalization of implicit racial bias used in this study.

  2. For descriptive purposes, test scores in Fig. 2 were adjusted using a “shrunken” Empirical Bayes (EB) technique to minimize the influence of counties with relatively imprecise estimates of test scores (Fahle et al., 2019).

  3. Collective rates of explicit racial bias were unrelated to racial disparities in gifted assignment; therefore, racial gaps in gifted assignment were not a significant mediator of the relation between collective rates of explicit racial bias and racial test score disparities. See Tables A.1–A.6 in the Appendix for complete results from mediation models.


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Correspondence to Francis A. Pearman II.

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Pearman, F.A. Collective Racial Bias and the Black-White Test Score Gap. Race Soc Probl 14, 283–292 (2022).

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