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Census Data Confirm Rise in High-School Attainment

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Newly released data from the 1990 Census provide additional evidence that the high-school-graduation rate is rising, particularly among minorities.

Among all Americans age 25 and older, the data show, 75.2 percent had a high-school diploma or its equivalent that year, compared with 66.5 percent in 1980. Among blacks, the attainment rate over the decade rose from 51.2 percent to 63.1 percent, more than double the 1970 level.

Previous reports have shown similar trends. But the new data--the first to provide state-by-state breakdowns by race--also show that the Hispanic high-school-attainment rate, which remained flat nationally in the 1980's, rose in many states. And, they show for the first time, the attainment rate of American Indians increased sharply from 1980 to 1990.

"There has been fairly substantial improvement in high-school completion among all groups,'' said Robert Kominski, the chief of the education branch in the population division in the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, he cautioned, the graduation rate for minorities continues to lag behind that of whites and will continue to do so for many decades at the current pace.

Over time, as the older, less-educated members of minority groups die, Mr. Kominski said, the minorities' rates will equal that of whites. "But 'over time' here is a very long time--probably two generations,'' he said.

Any acceleration in the increase in graduation rates will require "general systemic changes in the way we do schooling in the U.S.,'' said Rafael Valdivieso, the vice president of the Academy for Educational Development.

"I'm not sure the restructuring is in place that can really affect the minority population,'' he said.

Gains in the South

The new data, released last month, represent the first detailed information from the 1990 Census on social and economic characteristics by race and Hispanic origin.

In addition to the education data, the report includes data on household income--which show that the black-white gap narrowed in the 1980's--and poverty status.

The education information differs from previously released data on high-school attainment, which is used to track progress toward the national goal of achieving a 90 percent high-school-graduation rate by 2000.

In its 1991 report on the education goals, the National Education Goals Panel included completion rates of 19- and 20-year-olds and 23- and 24-year-olds, rather than the educational-attainment rates of those 25 and older.

The latter rates, according to Mr. Valdivieso, who chaired a technical group advising the goals panel on selecting measures for the high-school-completion goal, do not accurately reflect the current state of schooling because they include data from older adults, who tend to be less educated than younger people.

Nevertheless, the trends over time are similar for the two groups of data, and the new report offers some clues to explain them.

For example, the new data show that the increase in the proportion of black and American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut adults with high-school diplomas or the equivalent was fueled by particularly sharp gains in the South.

In 1990, 59.1 percent of blacks in the South were high-school graduates, compared with 44.9 percent in 1980.

"A lot of people have the image of the black [completion] rate representing urban, inner cities,'' said Mr. Valdivieso. "The majority of African-Americans are in the Southeast. In the Southeast, there have been a number of gains, both in terms of completion and achievement.''

The rising attainment rates of black adults may also reflect a growth in the number of African-American dropouts obtaining General Educational Development certificates, added Jay Smink, the executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center in Clemson, S.C.

"You're seeing a tremendous increase right now in the numbers of those who did not graduate and realize the job market is tough,'' he said. "Anybody realizing that will go back and get a G.E.D.''

Immigration Patterns

Among Hispanics and Asians and Pacific Islanders, however, the picture is mixed.

Over all, 49.8 percent of Hispanic adults were high-school graduates in 1990, up from 44 percent in 1980. The rate for Asians, meanwhile, rose from 74.8 percent to 77.5 percent during that period.

But those patterns, relatively flat compared with those of blacks, may not reflect the quality of the U.S. school system, cautioned Mr. Kominski. The Hispanic and Asian groups include older immigrants who came to the United States without high-school diplomas, he noted.

"They are adding to the pool, and ringing up as dropouts, but they are not really U.S. dropouts,'' Mr. Kominski said.

The state-by-state data offer some evidence to back up that point. While the Hispanic attainment rate remained relatively flat in the West, a region of high rates of immigration, it rose from 42.8 percent to 51.6 percent in the Northeast.

Mr. Kominski added that the Census Bureau will in the future produce additional reports that provide information on the extent to which the changes in attainment reflect immigration patterns.

Copies of the report, CPH-L-92, are available for $12 each by calling the statistical-information office of the bureau's population division at (301) 763-5002.

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