Explaining the Black-White gap in cognitive test scores: Toward a theory of adverse impact

Jonathan M. Cottrell, Daniel A. Newman, Glenn I. Roisman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In understanding the causes of adverse impact, a key parameter is the Black-White difference in cognitive test scores. To advance theory on why Black-White cognitive ability/knowledge test score gaps exist, and on how these gaps develop over time, the current article proposes an inductive explanatory model derived from past empirical findings. According to this theoretical model, Black-White group mean differences in cognitive test scores arise from the following racially disparate conditions: family income, maternal education, maternal verbal ability/knowledge, learning materials in the home, parenting factors (maternal sensitivity, maternal warmth and acceptance, and safe physical environment), child birth order, and child birth weight. Results from a 5-wave longitudinal growth model estimated on children in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development from ages 4 through 15 years show significant Black-White cognitive test score gaps throughout early development that did not grow significantly over time (i.e., significant intercept differences, but not slope differences). Importantly, the racially disparate conditions listed above can account for the relation between race and cognitive test scores. We propose a parsimonious 3-Step Model that explains how cognitive test score gaps arise, in which race relates to maternal disadvantage, which in turn relates to parenting factors, which in turn relate to cognitive test scores. This model and results offer to fill a need for theory on the etiology of the Black-White ethnic group gap in cognitive test scores, and attempt to address a missing link in the theory of adverse impact.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1713-1736
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Applied Psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2015


  • Achievement gap
  • Adverse impact
  • Cognitive ability/knowledge
  • Personality
  • Race

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology


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