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African American students have the opportunity to earn academic achievement awards where students of their own race are their only competition. Each time they receive those awards, they are reminded of the requirements that had to have been met in order to reach such recognition. The GPA requirements for these awards usually equal the average GPA of their Asian and Caucasian classmates. Thus, the standards of these awards statistically pale in comparison to the achievements of the Asian and Caucasian students. Because there are no equivalent race-specific awards given to Asian or Caucasian students, it is clear that there is a discrepancy in what society expects from students of certain races academically.
These awards were created by organizations to motivate these students to continue their academic endeavors and perhaps achieve more. This study attempts to evaluate the validity of such awards by the defining academic excellence for all students, regardless of race. With research, the paper also attempts to determine reasons for perhaps lowering the standards for African-American specific awards. Taking in to account all the factors that contribute to a student's motivation, it is concluded that the awards could only prove to be ineffective.
Ms. Emily Sigman
Senior Independent Project
The Psychological Effect of Academic Achievement Awards on
African American Students
Over the past couple decades, public schools and separate organizations in Montgomery County, Maryland have awarded African American and Hispanic students who display achievements in academics, leadership, and athletics. One of these awards was granted to an athlete who maintained a 2.5 grade point average (only .5 above the ineligibility GPA of 2.0); another was rewarded to an African American student for acquiring a GPA of 3.0. These awards clearly exclude other populations such as Asian Americans and Caucasians. How is it that the students of those ethnicities, who typically sit on the more successful end of the academic achievement gap, are not awarded for similar accomplishments? According to research, it is statistically more of a rarity for African-American and Hispanic students to attain equal levels of achievements when compared to Asians and Caucasians (NAEP Studies). Because such achievement remains uncommon with the students of these races, the accomplishments warrant reward, in the opinion of the organizations giving the awards. Organizations like Montgomery County's African American Festival of Academic Excellence claim that they seek to "encourage and assist African American students to strive for academic excellence" by presenting students with congratulatory certificates (AAFAE Online). However, it needs to be proven whether these awards do motivate African-American and Hispanic students to pursue more academic rigor or whether they set the bar low in a way that indicates that it would be too difficult for them to achieve more like their Asian and Caucasian counterparts. Furthermore, a study of the possible relationship between the awards and the achievement gap needs to be considered to evaluate the necessity and effectiveness of these awards in our school systems. Challenged by statistical and psychological theories, the validity of the awards and their ability to incite more motivation in African American students has proven, so far, to be ineffective.
Context for Evaluation of the Awards
In order to determine the legitimacy of these academic awards as motivational tools, true academic excellence must be defined. A student's grade point average is usually the first listed requirement for the awards in question and thus, seemingly, the most important and simplest way to measure school performance.. In order to define academic excellence in terms of a student's grade point average, the national average GPA of all high school students should be considered. According to an article by Justin Pope of the Associated Press, in the year 2000, the national average for GPAs was a 2.94. At that time, the above average performance could have been defined by a GPA that surpasses 3.0. However, it was reported that in 2005 over a fifth of the high school population claimed to have a GPA equivalent to an A average (Pope). Therefore, throughout this study, a GPA of 3.5 is believed to best represent academic excellence in today's society, across the racial spectrum. In short, awards with this requirement are less likely to be given due to racially subjective reasons or differing expectations of students based on race. Students awarded based on this requirement would undeniably be considered deserving of the recognition that comes with academic excellence.
Granted that academic excellence should also be evaluated along with several other factors-such as each county's various methods of reaching a grade point average, each teacher's or academic department's various grading policies, and the student's individual effort and socioeconomic status to name a few-this study specifically analyzes academic awards given primarily based on grade point averages. Thus, classifying a GPA that approximately indicates academic excellence for all races, a 3.5, is necessary to assess the validity and the effectiveness of the awards given to only African-American students.
Examples of Awards Given
While based on the national average GPA, an above average GPA would be closer to 3.5, most of the race-specific awards do not require a GPA close to that estimated gage of academic excellence. Within Montgomery County Maryland, the African American Festival of Academic Excellence awards high school students in this county who earn a "cumulative unweighted Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.0 or above or a cumulative weighted GPA of 3.2 or above for all combined high school years through the first semester of the current school year". Also in the Montgomery County area, the Iota Upsilon Lambda Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, a historically Black fraternity grants the following awards based on the corresponding requirements: Jesse Owens Award for athletes with outstanding devotion to athletics and a minimum GPA of 2.5; Paul Robeson Award for minimum 3.0 GPA; and the W.E.B Dubois Award for minimum of 3.5 GPA. Illustrated in Montgomery County, the discrepancy prominently separates the races that typically perform well at the high end of the achievement gap and the races that usually fall short of the standards of academic excellence. The majority of the recognition given to African American students in Montgomery County does not meet the standard of excellence that was based upon the average GPA in the nation. Hence, there seems to be a discrepancy between the probable definition of "above average" for the students across the nation (a grade point average of 3.5 or higher) and the probable definition of "above average" for African American students.
Although the conditions of the listed academic awards still represent fine achievements, equivalent certificates and recognition are not given to Asian and Caucasian students of in a similar race-specific way. Based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), if organization s were to give out the same awards to Caucasian and Asian American students that met the same requirements, the amount of students that would receive rewards would be overwhelming. In contrast, there exists only a small portion of the African American student body that reach the standards of those academic awards. This disparity in the awarding system for students of different races presents itself not only in Montgomery County, but also throughout the country. In the San Francisco Unified School District, the district itself hosts a community event known as the Annual African American Student Honor Roll Parade and Celebration honoring "all middle and high school students with a 3.0 grade point average or above for the past two semesters, along with the ten top achieving students from each elementary school in the district" (Robbins). However, the level of recognition seems unwarranted when a student with a 3.0 does meet the same standard to which other students are held for the non-race specific academic awards they would be eligible to receive. Superintendent of Schools in that San Francisco district, Waldemar Rojas, also annually presents a special gold embossed plaque, "the Academic Excellence Award" to all African-American middle and high school students with a 4.0 GPA (Robbins). Even though the conditional GPA of this award seems to exceed the previously decided definition of academic excellence, in terms of GPA, there was no evidence that equal recognition was given to students of other races who achieved the same.
In Seattle Public Schools (2003), "more than 140 African American students from Garfield High School [were] recognized for their academic achievement at the Ku'Onesha Awards. These students have achieved a grade point average of 3.0 or higher" sponsored by the " Parents for African American Student Excellence (PAASE), a multicultural group dedicated to closing the academic achievement gap at Garfield High School" ("Seattle's Public Schools"). Thus, the inconsistency among the awards given to student of various races becomes clear when there is no clear equivalent recognition for academic achievement given to specifically Asians and Caucasian students. It is evident that there is inequality in the awarding systems across the nation; the African-American students get awards with less demanding conditions than what the national average GPA implies the requirements should be, while the students of the races on the statistically better side of the academic achievement gap, receive no recognition for equal achievement. The latter students must compete with all races to receive more requirement intensive awards (Divoky 220).
Reasons for Race-Specific Academic Awards
In order to resolve the apparent disparity, the reasons for awarding mediocre achievement (or accomplishment deemed mediocre for students of other races) must be analyzed. Why do organizations and school systems feel that it is necessary to grant race-specific academic awards to African American students? The allowance of these lowered expectations and requirements for African American students must be argued and evaluated by statistical and historical data Sandra Graham, who studied motivation in African American students, define motivation as a perception of the "likelihood of attaining a goal and the value (affect) associated with that goal attainment" (57). Thus we must delve into the factors that influence this perception of what can be attained.
The shortage of internal motivation for the majority of African American students has been the source of debate of educators across the nation. One theory claims that within the African American student community, there is animosity towards the high-achieving that stems from cultural associations, creating an environment that discourages learning. Thus, the awards may serve as a physical way to combat the verbal "put-downs" that can hinder a student from achieving self-actualization in academia. According to a study performed by the University of Illinois, African-American high school students who considered themselves very good students were shown to be more likely to be the victims of verbal abuse from their peers (Cherry). "The study further suggests that dealing with classmate put-downs can make it difficult for good students to learn while making it near impossible for behind to catch up (Cherry). According Fordham and Ogbu who studied internal cultural bias, high achieving African American students tend to be labeled by their academic strive as "acting white" (178). As clarified by Tyson, Darity, and Castellino, the formation of the term, "acting white" was part of a larger oppositional culture constructed by African Americans in response to their history of enslavement and discrimination. The oppositional identity was said to be "part of a cultural orientation toward schooling which exists within the minority community" (Tyson, Darity, and Castellino 583). Thus, some African Americans claim that academic achievement should not be highly valued in the community because such actions have been associated with the standard norms of success among Caucasian Americans. Therefore, academic awards, specifically given to African American students, may have lowered standards for retrieval to rival this force against education in the African American community. The goal of the awards in this case would be to grant the student with confidence that what their hard work in school is worth the possible ridicule because of the future success.
School systems and private organizations would create these race-specific awards also to perhaps stimulate motivation when students face difficult socio-economic and home environment related issues that result in less drive to succeed. As indicated by the U.S. Census Bureau's study of children younger than 18 living in families, 27 percent of Hispanic children and 30 percent of black children live in poverty, compared with about 13 percent of white children. According Graham research of the motivation of African American students previous "social scientistsâ€¦found it easy to relate differences between Blacks and Whites in family structure to differences in their achievement needs" (60). Graham cited George Mussen as having conducted first comparative racial study on the need to achieve, or a student's motivation. Thereafter, 18 more studies arose that basically tested for the same data, the level of each race of students' need to achieve. Seven out of 19 studies, or 36%, reported whites to be higher in the need to achieve than Blacks, (Graham 61). Graham goes on to conclude that "even though African Americans appeared to be lower in the achievement motive in these studies, they reported educational and vocational aspirations equal to or higher than their White counterparts." This means that they were just as likely as Caucasians to aspire to go to college and to enter high status professions (Graham 66) Therefore the awards could be given to generate this need to achieve that compels students to have higher aspirations and academic successes and hence associate the awards with the rewards that hard work brings in the future such post-secondary education and a steady job. Graham continues to point out the concrete correlation between poor socio-economic status and low motivation. Therefore, the awards could provide the encouragement that their economic situation stifles.
The Research Center for the organization known as Editorial Projects in Education asserts that, "the disparities in achievement are often attributed to socioeconomic factors". As referenced earlier, Graham noticed that motivation was lower among students of certain socioeconomic status, not students in a particular race. Therefore, the academic awards do not need to be race specific because race alone has no correlation to the lack of motivation. While the proportions of African American and Hispanic students who achieve well academically continue to increase, there is still a clear disparity between those who are rewarded for their achievements with relation to ethnicity. Illustrated in Montgomery County, the discrepancy prominently separates the races that typically perform well at the high end of the achievement gap and the races that usually fall short of the standards of academic excellence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's study of children younger than 18 living in families, 27 percent of Hispanic children and 30 percent of black children live in poverty, compared with about 13 percent of white children. Graham goes on to conclude that "even though African Americans appeared to be lower in the achievement motive in these studies, they reported educational and vocational aspirations equal to or higher than their White counterparts." This means that they were just as likely as Caucasians to aspire to go to college and to enter high status professions (Graham 66) The Research Center for the organization known as Editorial Projects in Education asserts that, "the disparities in achievement are often attributed to socioeconomic factors". As referenced earlier, Graham noticed that motivation was lower among students of certain socioeconomic status, not students in a particular race. Therefore, the academic awards do not need to be race specific because race alone has no correlation to the lack of motivation. Thus, the lack of motivation among African American students is not a contributor to the achievement but the shortage of drive in students who live in poor economic conditions remains the problem. Unfortunately, African Americans and Hispanics happen to form the majority of the economically down-trotted. Conversely, we must also remember that not all African Americans are in economic hardship while there are several Caucasian and Asian American students in poor socioeconomic situations who cannot receive awards that encourage to them strive academically despite their situation further establishing inequality within our school systems.
The Academic Achievement Gap
Although it has been concluded that African American students are capable of generating enough motivation for great achievement, despite some possible obstacles, the statistics still trouble educators as there still clear differences between the racial groups of students (see Figure1).
Fig. 1. Trend in Grade Point Average by Race/Ethnicity, "NAEP 2005 HSTS: Grade Point Average, Total GPA." NAEP. U.S. Department of Education. Web. 3 Jan. 2010. <http://nationsreportcard.gov/hsts_2005/hs_gpa_3a_1.asp?tab_id=tab3&subtab_id=Tab_1#chart>.
The average GPA for Asian and Pacific Islander students throughout the U.S. surpasses all other groups with a 3.16, a grade point average higher than most of the requirements for the African American specific academic awards. Black students remain at the bottom end of the GPA spectrum with a GPA of 2.69. Taking this number in to account, school systems and private organizations that create the academic awards in question clearly must have made the requirements low enough to make certain that there would be some viable candidates for such awards. But if these organizations continue to foster the idea that 3.0 is an academic reach, some African American students will never reach above that bar. By setting the bar at such a level, I hypothesize that it sends a message to African American students that they are barely capable of reaching their counterparts' average scores.
Why Awards with Mediocre Requirements Do Not Work As Incentives for Education
No matter what the reasons are for awarding African American students for average work, the lasting effects of such recognition and attention on mediocre achievements have yet to be fully examined. Based on psychological tendencies, attempting to place extrinsic value on education, especially through the representation of a simple piece of paper, in effort to provide an incentive to learn proves ineffective with adolescents (Plotnik 333). In order to generate more of an intrinsic desire to achieve, Henry Murray's original theory on human motivation must be understood. He "observed that individuals vary in their tendency or desire to do things well and compete against a standard of excellence" (Graham 60). Instead of trying to create an incentive to learn, educators who desire to close the achievement gap should elicit with the intrinsic motivations within students by setting the academic achievement bar even higher.