Black Students With Exotic Names Face School Barriers

11-May-2005 12:40 PM EDT

University of Florida

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Newswise — What's in a name? Quite a lot for black students with exotic names who do not make the grade in school and are often overlooked by gifted programs, a new University of Florida study finds.

Da'Quan or Damarcus, for example, are more likely to score lower on reading and mathematics tests and are less likely to meet teacher expectations and be referred to gifted programs than their siblings with more common names such as Dwayne, said David Figlio, a UF economist who did the research.

"This study suggests that the names parents give their children play an important role in explaining why African-American families on average do worse because African-American families are more inclined than whites or Hispanics to give their children names that are associated with low socio-economic status," Figlio said.

Such boys and girls suffer in terms of the quality of attention and instruction they get in the classroom because teachers expect less from children with names that sound like they were given by parents with lower education levels, and these lower expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said.

"When you see a particular name, like David or Catherine, you internalize it in a different way than a name such as LaQuisha," said Figlio, whose findings appear in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. "And it could be that teachers start to make inferences about a student's parents, the parent's education level and the parents' commitment to their children's education based on the names the parents give their children."

To measure a name's socio-economic status, Figlio studied birth certificate data to determine the most frequent name attributes given by mothers who were high school dropouts. Most commonly, these names began with certain prefixes, such as "lo," "ta," and "qua." They ended with certain suffixes, such as "isha" and "ious," included an apostrophe or were particularly long, with several low-frequency consonants, and were given overwhelmingly by poorly educated black women, he said.

Using information on 55,046 children from 24,298 families with two or more children enrolled in a large Florida school district from 1994-95 through 2000-01, Figlio studied national reading and mathematics test scores and grade transcripts to determine who was promoted to the next grade or referred to gifted programs. Comparing pairs of siblings, Figlio found teachers treat children within the same family differently depending on whether their name connoted low socio-economic status, resulting in discrepancies in academic performance.

A boy named Damarcus, for example, was 2 percent less likely than his brother Dwayne to be referred to a gifted program, even with identical test scores, he said. "The black-white test score gap has been a persistent issue in American education for decades, despite the fact that African-Americans and white children are receiving increasingly similar education," he said. "Our study shows that names are partly to explain for this gap."

Although giving a child name associated with low socio-economic status accounts for only about 15 percent of the black-white test score gap, this is a more significant amount than the effect of dramatic reductions in class size found in other studies, teachers' years of experience or whether teachers have bachelor's or master's degrees, Figlio said.

The opposite results were found with Asian names, said Figlio, who presented his paper to the American Economic Association in Philadelphia in January. Students with Asian-sounding names were more likely to be recommended for gifted programs than siblings with common American names and similar test scores, he said.

Names are important because they can reveal a parent's educational level and parental aspirations, and help to mold a person's identity, becoming information that people use in forming expectations about a child, Figlio said. "On one level people are aware of this because the No. 2 segment of the book sales market is baby name books, after Bibles," he said.

In the African nation of Ghana, people recognize the power of names and take the choice away from parents altogether, Figlio said. Children receive one of only seven boys' or girls' names, depending on the day of the week they were born, he said.

David Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Figlio's research is provocative and persuasive.

"While other prominent researchers have argued that children who are given exotic names do not suffer for their parent's choice, it is hard to dismiss the finding that even among sibling pairs, children with exotic names fare worse in school and are less likely to be classified as bright and gifted," Autor said. "This suggests that value-neutral cultural choices, such as baby name, may have important economic consequences."

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