The U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress periodically measures literacy skills at grades four, eight, and 12. The results are reported at four levels: At Basic and below Basic; at Proficient and at Advanced for each grade level. As reading is the basis for all other education, and as by grade eight schooling has had ample time to be effective, grade eight reading proficiency can be taken as a good indicator of the quality of education available to students. The quality of the data made available by NAEP allows us to identify those factors most significant in determining whether a child will grow up in the virtuous circle of good educational opportunities and class mobility, or the vicious circle of poor educational opportunities and caste sedimentation.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2In 1992, nine percent of black students in grade eight read at the Proficient level and for all practical purposes no black students read at the Advanced level. Twenty-one years later, in 2013, 16 percent of black students read at the Proficient level in grade eight and one percent read at the Advanced level. Although the percentage of black students reading a grade level or above in grade eight has doubled, 83 percent of African American students still read below the level expected at grade eight. According to U.S. Department of Education data for the 2011-12 school year, the most recent available, there were 586,231 black students and in eighth grade. Therefore, there were nearly half a million black students reading below grade level and almost exactly 100,000 black students reading at or above grade level in grade eight, which is one-third the number that would be expected if Black students had equal educational opportunities to those afforded white students.

NAEP allows further refinements in analysis. We can, for example, look at results within race by income, parental education and school location. By doing so we can examine the crucial variables that influence the disparate learning outcomes just outlined. What becomes clear in the analysis is that while there are correlations between income and achievement, there are even stronger correlations between how well black parents are educated as well as where their kids attend school, and the achievement of black children.

First , let’s look at the correlation between family income and student achievement. NAEP uses eligibility for National Lunch Programs (free and reduced cost meals) as an income indicator. The cut-off between those eligible for National Lunch Programs and those less poor families that are ineligible is about $35,000, which happens to be the median income for Black families. While 28 percent of black students who are less impoverished are now reading at grade level, nearly 90 percent of black students from poorer families are not able to do so, and the gap between the two is widening.

There are approximately 250,000 black students in grade eight eligible for National Lunch Programs, 33,000 of whom are reading at or above grade level. Of the approximately 334,000 black eighth grade students ineligible for National Lunch Programs, 94,000 are reading at grade level. Other things being equal, National Lunch Program eligibility appears to account for a difference of 15 percentage points for black students in grade eight reading. Reading achievement at grade level in grade eight appears to be correlated with family income, but as I have established, there are clearly other factors in play.

NAEP reports parental education as “Did not finish high school,” “Graduated high school,” “Some education after high school” or “Graduated College.” Black students who told NAEP that their parents did not finish high school scored at Proficient or above 8 percent of the time in 2013. Black students who reported that their parents who had graduated from high school were at or above grade level 9 percent of the time in 2013. For black students who said that their parents had some education after high school, 21 percent were at Proficient or above in 2013. The black children of college graduates were at or above grade level 22 percent of the time.

Looking just at reported parental education, the difference between scores of students reporting parents as having educational attainment at the “no high school diploma” level and those reporting parents as having educational attainment at the “college degree” level is 14 percentage points for black students in grade eight reading. The effect of increasing parental education for black students is approximately the same as that for higher family income. Increasing parental education from the lowest to the highest category triples the percentage reading at or above grade level for black students.

We can look at this another way by calculating the numbers of students reading at grade level (Proficient and above) with parents at various educational attainment levels, that is, the percentage of students at a given combination of reading proficiency and parental education. Seventeen percent of black adults over 25 years reported to the Census that they had less than a high school diploma, equivalent to NAEP’s “Did not finish high school.” [A caution: the numbers of adults in these categories, as reported by their children, are not necessarily the same as those self-reported to the Census or those that might be obtained from school and college records.] Thirty-one percent of African Americans said that they were high graduates with a diploma or GED, equivalent to NAEP’s “Graduated high school.” Thirty-three percent of African Americans reported some college or associate’s degree, equivalent to “Some education after high school” and 19 percent of African Americans reported attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher: “Graduated College.”

Since 8 percent of grade eight black students reporting parents with no diploma read at grade level or above, and 17 percent of black adults report that they did not graduate from high school, we can estimate that just one percent of grade eight black students read at grade level in spite of having parents who did not finish high school. Three percent of black students report that their parents completed high school while they themselves read at grade level. Seven percent of black students read at grade level in grade eight and have parents who had some college. And four percent of black students at grade eight read at grade level and report that their parents have a college degree. [The percentage of black students at grade eight reading at grade level who are the children of college graduates is lower than that of those whose parents have “some college” because there are fewer adult black college graduates.]

Cross-tabulating parental education and National Lunch Program eligibility, we find that for black students whose parents did not graduate from high school there is no difference in the low percentage of students scoring at or above Proficient, each is 7 percent. On the other hand, black students whose parents graduated from college have great differences in reading proficiency at grade eight related to family income. Fifteen percent of those eligible for National Lunch Programs (in itself nearly double the level of those whose parents did not complete high school) and 32 percent of those ineligible, read at the Proficient or above levels. This compares to 17 percent for all black students in grade eight. The effect of increases in the family income category at each additional level of parental education are particularly strong at high school and college completion.

NAEP data also allows us to test for school location effects: city, suburban, town and rural. City and suburban locations appear to be the effective variables. Fourteen percent of black students in city schools in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, while 20 percent of those in suburban schools did so, nearly a fifty percent advantage for black suburban students. Moving from city to suburban schools increases the percentage of students at or above grade level for black students by nearly 50 percent.

Cross-tabulating school location and National Lunch Program eligibility, we find that 1one percent of black students in city schools who were eligible for National Lunch Programs in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, as did 25 percent of those from more prosperous families who were ineligible. Fifteen percent of black students in suburban schools who were eligible for National Lunch Programs in 2013 scored at the Proficient or above levels, as did 30 percent of those who were ineligible. The percentages of black students scoring Proficient or above in grade eight reading in suburban schools, for both eligible and ineligible students, were double those in city schools.

Finally, cross-tabulating school location by parental education, we find that for black students, of those attending city schools whose parents had not graduated from high school, 7 percent were proficient and above as were just 5 percent of those in suburban schools whose parents had not graduated from high school. Of those black students whose parents had obtained a high school diploma, the percent Proficient or above was an identical 9 percent in city and suburban schools.

But for black students the advantages of attending suburban schools is clear for those whose parents had some college (from 18 percent city to 24 percent suburban) as well as for those whose parents graduated from college (17 percent and 25 percent). This effect is more apparent when we look at the change in percentages scoring at or above Proficient as a percentage of the percentage for students in city schools. The advantage for black students whose parents had some college is 33 percent and for those whose parents graduated from college 47 percent.

Twenty percent of black students, without regard to family income or parental education attainment, attending schools in the suburbs, as compared to 14 percent in city schools, read at or above grade level. Twenty-two percent of black eighth graders whose parents had completed college were at least proficient readers as compared to 8 percent of those whose parents had not completed high school. And 30 percent of black students ineligible for national lunch programs, that is, with family incomes over $35,000, and who attended suburban schools, were at least proficient readers, as compared to 11 percent of black students eligible for national lunch programs who attended city schools.

As $35,000 is approximately the median income of black families, the difference in educational outcomes is most likely an artifact of the difference in the quality of schools between urban and suburban systems.