Study Finds That Black and White Infants Start Out on a Level Playing Field in Cognitive Development

It is well known to readers of this journal that black students on average score lower than white students on the SAT and ACT college entrance examinations. So, too, blacks tend to score lower on the GRE, GMAT, MCAT, and LSAT tests, which serve as gatekeepers to the nation’s graduate programs. Black youngsters also score lower on average than whites on National Assessment of Education Progress examinations given to K-12 students. Even black adults tend to score lower than whites on IQ tests.

For years a debate has raged whether these test score differences are caused by an innate genetic deficiency among blacks or whether environmental factors cause lower test scores.

A new study published in the journal Sociological Perspectives offers strong evidence that genetics has nothing to do with the test score gap and that environmental factors such as healthcare and family income play the major role in producing the racial gap in test scores. Measuring the cognitive abilities of infants offers a baseline figure of where blacks and whites start out relative to each other. If black and white babies start out on a level playing field but racial differences emerge later in life, a strong case can be made that environmental factors, rather than genetics, explain the persisting black-white test score gaps that occur later in life.

The author of the study, Phyllis L.F. Rippeyoung, an assistant professor of sociology at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, used data on nearly 11,000 children born in the year 2001. Surveyors were sent to the homes of the babies in the study. Parents were interviewed and the babies were observed and tested to assess their development.

The study’s most important finding is that, overall, black infants score lower than white infants on cognitive development measures. But when socioeconomic variables are the same and factors such as the predominance of low birthweight babies among African Americans are controlled for, black infants score slightly higher than white infants on cognitive development measures. So black and white babies who are born healthy, who receive adequate prenatal and natal care, and whose mothers are healthy do just as well as whites on early cognitive tests.

The results of this study point to the need for better prenatal and postnatal care for African-American mothers and their infants. Nutritional programs, vitamin intake, cessation of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use during pregnancy, and encouraging black mothers to breastfeed may be the best strategies to eliminate the black-white test score gap.