Study Eliminates Ethnicity as Possible Cause of Test-Score Gap
More economists than people might expect focus on measuring such things as equality and quality of life, which are traceable to factors including education and skill level, says Associate Professor Gabor Kezdi. Kezdi, who teaches in CEU’s economics department, and his colleague Gabor Kertesi from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, are two such economists. In a joint project, they investigated the test-score gap between Roma and non-Roma eighth graders in Hungary and found that it is substantial both in both reading ability and mathematic reasoning. The differences, they found, result from social disadvantages with ethnicity playing no additional role.
“Many economists have worked on the notion of happiness and whether or not it is possible to measure it,” Kezdi says. “There's this notion of living healthy, wealthy, and wise and many economists are interested in whether skills lead to healthier, wealthier, and happier lives. We believe there is such a relationship there. If it were possible to increase the skill level of the Roma minority, then the promise is that the gap between them and the majority, in terms of health, wealth, and satisfaction with life, will decrease. And there is evidence that skills have such effects.”
The study is the first to estimate the achievement gap between Roma and non-Roma students in Central and Eastern Europe based on large and reliable data. In this case, the two researchers worked from data collected through a periodic survey of 10,000 young Hungarians who were interviewed when they finished eighth grade and have been followed ever since. The students’ ethnicity was first determined by their parents' self-identification. But the participants—adults in this sixth year of the study—now choose their own affiliation.
The gap in reading and mathematics test scores among Hungarian eighth graders is close to the achievement gap between African-American and white students of the same age group in the United States in the 1980s (before a three-decade tightening of the U.S. gap). Kezdi says that the large achievement disparity is probably the most important cause of labor market disadvantages affecting Roma people and plays an important role in the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. “We have instances of discrimination in Hungary, but differences in skills play the larger role,” he says. “The concern is that the Roma have unequal chances by the time they reach the job market.”
Kezdi’s and Kertesi's research shows that poverty is the major factor in the test-score gap and that poverty-related perils act as major stumbling blocks to achievement for Roma children. The environments in which they grow up are poorer and less cognitively stimulating. For example, if families cannot afford books, Internet service, or travel opportunities, they are at an immediate and significant disadvantage. Also, the types of schools that Roma students attend make a difference; the test-score gap is smaller when they attend school with non-Roma students.
The research findings, published last year in the American Economic Review, are similar to the results of studies in other countries including U.S. “The results have clear policy implications,” Kezdi says. “Closing the achievement gap between Roma and non-Roma Hungarian students requires alleviating the disadvantages in their early-childhood and school environments and their overall health. International evidence shows that significant improvements can be achieved with programs that focus on improving the health of pregnant mothers and their children, early childhood education programs, and integrated education with high-quality standards.”
Photo: CEU/Daniel Vegel
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