College & Workforce Readiness

Report Urges Focus on Graduation-Rate Gaps

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 03, 2004 4 min read
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The nation’s abysmal high school graduation rate for some minority students is often obscured and ignored because of weak state oversight, loopholes in federal education law, and poor methods of measurement, a report issued last week charges.

The reports “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis,” and " Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t?,” are available from Results for America. (Both reports require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Only about half the country’s African-American, Hispanic, and Native American youths earn a high school diploma in four years, while at least three- quarters of their white and Asian-American classmates graduate on time, according to the study, which examined enrollment data for 2001. The report’s calculations put the national graduation rate at 68 percent.

According to the data, graduation-rate gaps between some minority and white students are at least 22 percentage points nationwide, while some states, like New York, have diploma-earning differences as high as 43 percentage points.

“President Bush, Secretary [of Education Rod] Paige: If you want to search for weapons of mass destruction, go to districts with minority graduation rates at 30 percent and 40 percent—you can find them all across the country,” Christopher Edley Jr., a co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, said during a press conference held here on Feb. 25 to release the study.

The study, “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth Are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis,” was conducted by researchers at the Civil Rights Project and the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. The Civil Society Institute’s Results for America Project, in Newton, Mass., and Advocates for Children of New York in New York City, helped issue the report.

Christopher B. Swanson, a research associate with the Urban Institute, developed the graduation rates by calculating the differences in student enrollment from one year to the next and the likelihood of students receiving a regular diploma. Mr. Swanson released a second study, “Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t?,” detailing the pitfalls in determining graduation rates.

The research follows recent studies that fault inaccurate and inconsistent measures used to determine graduation rates. Researchers say such measures often produce inflated percentages of high school completion.

‘Perverse Incentive’

Largest High School Completion Gaps

A new report calls attention to wide gaps in graduation rates between white and minority students. The following table shows the size of the gaps, in percentage points, in the states with the biggest gaps.

Rank

State White/
Hispanic
White/
Black
1 New York 43.4 40.2
2 Wisconsin 28.0 41.3
3 Pennsylvania 40.4 35.4
4 Michigan 40.3 n/a
5 Iowa 38.8 31.1
6 Massachusetts 37.6 24.3
7 Nebraska 34.8 36.5
8 Ohio 32.7 36.3
9 Illinois 25.1 35.1
10 Connecticut 31.8 21.2

SOURCE: “Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth Are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis,” the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, the Urban Institute, Advocates for Children of New York, and the Civil Society Institute

Mr. Swanson said the federal No Child Left Behind Act could be used as a tool to require states to address the graduation-rate gap. But he said that under the 2-year-old law, graduation rates are considered only when schools are in danger of failing to make “adequate yearly progress,” the law’s key indicator for holding schools accountable for achievement.

Because most states set “soft” targets for improving graduation rates, Mr. Swanson said, few high schools are held accountable for their low completion rates. The federal law, which requires states to show test-score gains for minority subgroups, ends up serving as a “perverse incentive” for schools to “push out” academically struggling minority students, he contended.

Along with giving districts incentives to keep students in school, the report recommends that graduation- rate accountability be applied to minority subgroups, as test scores are under the federal law. It also suggests high school completion rates be broken down by subgroups.

But Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow with the New York City- based Manhattan Institute who has researched graduation rates, said there is no evidence showing a relationship between being tested and dropping out. Graduation rates were just as low before the federal law was adopted in 2001.

The law, he added, does not prevent states from adopting stronger graduation-rate standards.

David Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said in an e-mail statement that the law protects students from being “pushed out” because schools must boost student achievement while ensuring that graduation rates don’t fall below state targets.

“The answer to improving minority graduation rates is not to increase the complexity of the adequate yearly progress [provision,]” he added.

Joseph F. Johnson, the special assistant to Ohio’s schools superintendent, said, “However you calculate the data, far too many students are not graduating.”

A state taskforce examined Ohio’s achievement gap, and among its recommendations was the formation of another group to study challenges facing the state’s high schools. That panel has already begun to meet.

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