Graduation-Rate Data Spur Questions About School Quality

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A federal report that finds black young adults, for the first time, are completing high school at the same rate as whites might lead some to conclude that educational parity had been achieved.

Not so, education experts said last week. While such findings are welcome, they said, the results don't necessarily mean that schools are doing a better job educating minority students.

The new data, released this month in a report by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, represent a "mixed message," because the quality of education may be considerably inferior at a majority-black school than at a majority-white one, said Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education in Washington.

Shirley McBay, the president of the QEM, or Quality Education for Minorities, Network in Washington agreed.

"This is a very positive development in the sense that the actual credential is achieved," she said. But, she added, "we have to make sure it has similar kinds of meaning in all communities."

Most minority students are enrolled in schools that are predominantly minority in their enrollment, Ms. McBay said. And the higher the percentage of minorities in a school, the less likely students are to be taught by teachers certified in the fields they are teaching. And course offerings are often much more limited at predominantly minority schools, she said.

Barbara A. Sizemore, the dean of the education school at DePaul University in Chicago, said she thought the report illustrated opportunities brought about by desegregation and the civil rights movement. "It tells you more about access than it does about quality," she said.

High school graduation at every high school, regardless of location, needs to be connected to rigorous and consistent academic standards, so that "we have more confidence in what a high school diploma means," said William Lowe Boyd, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University's University Park campus.

Fewer Hispanics Finish

The Census Bureau survey, conducted in March 1995, found the percentages of blacks and whites ages 25 to 29 who said they had received a high school diploma or its equivalent--including a General Educational Development credential--were essentially the same.

In both groups, about 87 percent said they had finished high school.

For blacks, that represented an increase from 80.6 percent in 1985 to 86.5 percent last year. Among whites, high school attainment has remained essentially unchanged, at roughly 87 percent, over the past decade.

High school completion rates seem to improve with successively younger groups. Among all people 25 and older, the bureau found that 83 percent of whites had completed high school, but that only 73.8 percent of blacks had.

Hispanics, who may be of any race, continue to have the lowest proportions of high school completion when compared with blacks, whites, and other races--which includes Asians and Pacific Islanders as well as Native Americans.

Among those 25 and older, 53.4 percent of Hispanics were high school graduates in 1995. Among the 25- to 29-year olds, 57.1 percent were.

The census report says the relatively lower educational attainment of Hispanics may be influenced by the large proportion of foreign-born Hispanics with less than a high school education.

The reasons for the increase in high school completion among blacks and whites in their late 20s are complex, experts said.

Figuring Completion

One factor may be that the message--delivered by parents, schools, and society at large--to stay in school may be getting through, they said.

Mr. Wilson of the American Council on Education and others suspect that a significant portion of the high school completion by blacks was accomplished through an equivalency credential.

That means, he said, that the high school completion figures mask the fact that dropout rates are still too high.

In reporting the symmetry of high school completion between black and white 25- to 29-year-olds, the Census Bureau did not break down how many of those completed the GED.

"Black youngsters and Hispanic youngsters are bumping into the reality for the need for high school graduation in order to get certain jobs," Mr. Wilson said. And that, he said, drives those who may have dropped out or "pushed out" to get an equivalency diploma.

Proportionately, more blacks and Hispanics than whites take the GED examination, Mr. Wilson said. The GED is a program of his council.

Vol. 16, Issue 03

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