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Census Data Find More Are Falling Behind in School

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WASHINGTON--The nation's children were poorer, more diverse, and more likely to have fallen behind in school in 1990 than they were 10 years earlier, newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate.

While dropout rates appear to have declined during the 1980's, a study released Friday by the Census Bureau reports that the percentage of children who fell behind in school by at least one grade level increased significantly during the 10-year period.

The data on grade-level attainment by age also reveal that a disproportionate percentage of blacks and Hispanics fell behind in school.

Demographers and education experts said last week that the Census Bureau's findings reflect a decade of heavy immigration and economic upheaval that left society, including its young people, more stratified by almost every measure.

In few places was the impact of demographic change and educational disparity more apparent than in Washington.

The District of Columbia ranked first in the nation in the percentage of residents over the age of 25 with at least a bachelor's degree, 33 percent. At the same time, however, it tied with Arkansas as having the nation's fifth-highest child-poverty rate: a quarter of all children under 18.

Washington ranked sixth, at 14 percent, in terms of the proportion of teenagers between 16 and 19 counted as high-school dropouts, and also ranked high in terms of the percentage of residents who were foreign-born, spoke a language other than English at home, and characterized themselves as not speaking English very well.

"Virtually everything is declining at the center,'' Harold L. Hodgkinson, the director of the Center for Demographic Policy at the Institute for Educational Leadership, said in an interview last week.

"This set of changes has not been at the center, but at the extremes,'' Mr. Hodgkinson added, asserting that the census reveals "changes in the nature of youth'' that many education-reform initiatives "are not touching at all.''

On the brighter side, however, the Census Bureau found that the proportion of Americans over the age of 25 with at least a high-school diploma increased to 75 percent in 1990, compared with about 67 percent a decade earlier.

In addition, data from the 1990 Census indicate, the proportion of people over 25 with at least a bachelor's degree rose from 16 percent in 1980 to 20 percent in 1990.

School-Enrollment Figures

The grade-level figures by age were included in an annual report on school enrollment issued by the Census Bureau last week.

The report, based on October 1990 survey data collected separately from that gathered for the 1990 Census, found that 35 percent of the nation's students were either enrolled below their appropriate grade level or had dropped out of school by the ages of 15 to 17.

About 48 percent of blacks and 49 percent of Hispanics in the 15-17 age bracket had fallen behind or dropped out, compared with 32 percent of whites, the survey found.

All three groups started out at about the same place, with 22 percent of those ages 6 to 8 enrolled below their appropriate grade level.

As the children moved into the 9-11 age group, however, the rate of enrollment below a student's appropriate grade level increased 14 percentage points for Hispanics, 11 percentage points for blacks, and just 5 percentage points for whites.

"Blacks and Hispanics fall behind much faster and stay behind,'' Robert Kominski, the chief of the education and social-stratification branch of the Census Bureau, said in an interview last week.

The report also highlighted differences in the kind of education afforded to various categories of children early in their school careers.

Only 49 percent of Hispanic children ages 3 to 5 attended nursery school or kindergarten, compared with 60 percent of whites and 57.8 percent of blacks.

Family income also played a significant role in determining whether and where children were enrolled in nursery school, Mr. Kominski said.

Among 3- and 4-year-olds, 30 percent of those from families earning less than $20,000 a year, 38 percent from families earning $20,000 to $39,999, and 59 percent of those from families earning at least $40,000 were enrolled in nursery schools.

Mr. Kominski noted, however, that he had not determined the degree to which such enrollment differences reflected an ability to pay or the likelihood that both parents in a given family were working and needed child-care services.

While 66 percent of families earning less than $20,000 enrolled their children in a public nursery school, just 15 percent from families earning at least $40,000 used such facilities.

Child-Poverty Data

The lastest figures on child poverty were included in a bureau report on the 1990 Census released late last month.

For children under 18, the poverty rate rose to nearly 18 percent in 1989, compared with 16 percent 10 years earlier; the family-poverty rate, meanwhile, rose from 9.6 percent to 10 percent.

Single women with children appear to have been among the hardest hit. Their poverty rate rose from 40 percent in 1979 to 42 percent in 1989. The poverty rate for single women with children under 6 increased from 56 percent to 57.4 percent.

"There is really an enormous problem with single parents raising children just about at the poverty line,'' Mr. Hodgkinson said, noting that most single mothers have incomes within about $400 of the federally designated poverty level.

During the past decade, the number of families with children headed by single women rose from about 5.5 million to 6.7 million, and the percentage of families with children headed by single women rose from about 17 percent to 20 percent.

Foreign-Born Residents

The report on the 1990 Census also documented the fact that immigration had a greater impact on the nation during the 1980's than in any other decade since the turn of the century.

Jeffrey S. Passel, the director of the immigration-research program at the Urban Institute, noted last week that the number of foreign-born people living in the United States is now at an all-time high of 19.8 million, or about 7.9 percent of the population.

In 1979, by contrast, foreign-born residents numbered about 14 million and accounted for 6 percent of the people living here.

The foreign origins and American destinations of immigrants have also changed significantly in recent decades, observed Mr. Passel, noting that he was also drawing from his own research.

While two-thirds of the immigrants of the 1950's came from Europe and Canada, during the past decade, 80 percent to 90 percent of the immigrants came from Asia and Latin America.

While previous immigration waves tended to hit New York City and other destinations on the East Coast, many immigrants of the past decade headed instead to California, Texas, and Florida, helping those three states account for about half of the nation's growth.

In the most recent census, foreign-born persons account for at least 9 percent of the residents in Texas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia; nearly 13 percent of the residents in Florida and New Jersey; nearly 15 percent in Hawaii; 16 percent in New York; and nearly 22 percent in California.

Peter A. Morrison, a demographer at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., noted that recent influxes of immigrants in the Los Angeles and Central Valley areas have prompted officials to project that public-school enrollments will increase 4 percent a year over the next decade.

The data also indicate that more than 10 percent of residents over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, and that one-quarter to one-half of the members of such households do not speak English very well.

Language barriers often appeared to extend to future generations as well.

In Texas, for example, about 25 percent of residents over age 5--more than double the state's percentage of foreign-born residents--spoke a language other than English at home; of those, almost 45 percent reported that they did not speak English very well.

Poverty as Predictor

While states with large non-English-speaking populations tended to have fairly high child-poverty rates, they nonetheless were at about the national average--or 75 percent--in terms of the proportion of residents over the age of 25 who had graduated from high school.

Poverty alone seemed to be a far stronger predictor of academic failure.

Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and West Virginia, which had the nation's proportionately smallest foreign-born populations, about 1 percent or less, each were also the five states with the smallest percentages of high-school graduates, with 64 percent to 67 percent of their residents over the age of 25 having earned a high-school diploma.

Of these states, Mississippi had the nation's highest poverty rate for children under 18, about 33 percent, and all easily ranked among the worst-off 10, with at least 24 percent of their children living in poverty.

On the other end of the spectrum, Connecticut and Maryland ranked first and second among the states with the lowest child-poverty rates, at 10.4 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively.

And the two states placed second and fifth, respectively, in the proportion of residents over the age of 25 who had earned a bachelor's degree, each counting more than a quarter of their residents in these ranks.

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