Among Black and White Young Adults, High School Completions Are on Par, Study Finds

By Megan Ruge — January 14, 2020 2 min read
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By Megan Ruge

For the first time in 40 years, the percentage of black 18- to 24-year-olds with a high school credential was nearly the same as that of white 18- to 24-year-olds, according to new data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

This information was released in a report titled “Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2019,which presents a variety of analyses of high school dropout and completion rates at both the state and national levels.

The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds not enrolled in a high school or lower education level who hold a high school diploma or an alternative degree, such as a GED, is known as the status completion rate. In the years between 1977 to 2016, the status completion rate for white 18- to 24-year-olds was consistently higher than the rate for black 18- to 24-year-olds, but the 2017 data shows only a 1 percentage point difference, with white student completion at 94.8 percent, compared to 93.8 percent for black students.

“We have seen the gap between black youth and white youth narrow between this period and for the most recent year we are seeing there isn’t a measurable gap,” said Joel McFarland, one of the report’s co-authors. “It kind of fits within a pattern of findings that we’re seeing across a lot of different data sources—that overall levels of high school attainment are increasing, high school dropout rates are decreasing—so it is kind of one piece of a larger trend towards higher attainment rates for young adults.”

But the reasons for the shrinking gap were hard to pinpoint.

“I think it does show there is progress being made and more black kids are staying in school and completing at least in some way,” said Russ Rumberger, a professor emeritus of education at UC Santa Barbara. He said the in “other indicators in the report, for example, the four-year cohort rate, there are still disparities there, and I think in most states.”

Rumberger explained that the completion rates include GED and non-diploma completion statuses, and the data doesn’t show whether the disparities are there because of non-diploma completions or not.

The report also includes the most recent averaged cohort graduation rate, which looks at the number of public school students graduating from high school in four years with a regular diploma.

By that rate, the percentage of students had been moving on an incline from 2010-11 to 2016-17.

Though the ACGR gives a more precise look at students’ four-year completion rates in specific demographics, Rumberger said that it isn’t showing all information for understanding attainment rates.

"[The ACGR] doesn’t account for the students who take more than four years to graduate, so I am not a big fan of that in that it misses kids who maybe take a little longer,” Rumberger said. “So English-learners who come to the United States as teenagers and have to learn English and pass all of the requirements for a diploma, those students often take longer...and that doesn’t get captured in the official adjusted rate. "

Though both Rumberger and McFarland stated that there are flaws with both indicators, McFarland said looking at the different sets of data, including the ACGR and the status completion rate, can show that the overall trend is an increase in high school attainment and that “there’s some evidence of gaps narrowing between white students and their black and Hispanic peers.”

Image: NCES Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.