The National Center for Education Statistics has now released graduation rates for US school districts, disaggregated for the usual racial and ethnic groups, but not by gender. For the purposes of this analysis, those rates will be used as given.
Much progress has been made in standardizing calculations for high school graduation rates and although there remain local oddities, such as a proliferation of types of high school diplomas, particularly in the South, the overall situation is such as to allow a sharper focus on individual districts. We can, then, look at three typical large urban districts—Chicago, New York and Philadelphia—with at least a first order degree of confidence that we are looking at similar data among them. (Chicago’s graduation rate calculations have been questioned—certain groups are said to be excluded—but that discussion can be put aside for another occasion.)
Asian students are reported to graduate at a rate of 91 percent in Chicago, 83 percent in New York City and 80 percent in Philadelphia. Black student graduation rates are reported as 71 percent in Chicago, 64 percent in New York City and 65 percent in Philadelphia. Latino students are reported as graduating at a rate of 80 percent in Chicago, 61 percent in New York and 53 percent in Philadelphia, while White students are reported as graduating at a rate of 87 percent in Chicago, 81 percent in New York City and 71 percent in Philadelphia.
The difference between Asian and White graduation rates, on the one hand, and Black and Latino rates, on the other, varies from 15 to 20 percentage points, with Chicago showing the least difference and New York City the greatest difference. The greatest differences between districts are those in nearly every case between the relatively better rates for Chicago and relatively worse rates for Philadelphia (but see proviso above).
Those graduation rates are indications of the success, or lack of it, for each of these districts in providing their students with diplomas. How, then, can we assess the degree to which those districts are successful in educating those students, providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary for college and career preparation?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is of some help in this. The cliché description of NAEP’s data is that it is “the gold standard,” and there is little doubt that its assessments are accurate. Unfortunately, NAEP does not provide district data for its 12th grade assessments. Therefore, Dropout Nation uses the assessment at eighth grade, selecting among the many subject-area assessments that which is most fundamental, reading. At grade eight, 63 percent of Chicago’s White students read at or above grade level (“Proficient”), as compared to 24 percent of the district’s Latino students and just 13 percent of the district’s Black students. (There are too few Asian students in the Chicago schools for NAEP to assess.) 46 percent of New York City’s White students and 26 percent of Philadelphia’s White students test at or above grade level in grade eight, as do 15 percent of New York City’s and 9 percent of Philadelphia’s Black students. Twenty-two percent of New York’s Latino students and 11 percent of Philadelphia’s Latino students test at grade level, as do 41 percent of New York’s and 44 percent of Philadelphia’s Asian students.
Philadelphia is clearly failing to teach reading to most of its students — a remarkable three-quarters of its White students and over 90 percent of its Black students are below grade level in reading on NAEP’s grade 8 evaluation. And although Chicago’s success with White Students is impressive, it fails to teach over 85 percent of its Black students this fundamental skill.
We can, with this information, throw some light on the question of how well-educated are those students receiving diplomas from these three cities.
Comparing NAEP Grade 8 Reading Proficiency for the New York City groups, we found the following for the four largest racial/ethnic groups: NAEP eighth-grade reading percent at or above grade level: Forty-one percent of Asians, 15 percent of Black students; 22 percent of Latino students; and 46 percent of White students. By the way: the graduation rates are t83 percent for Asian students, 64 percent for Black students, 61 percent for Latino students, and 81 percent for White students. Dividing the high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: Two-point-zero for Asian students; 4.3 for Black students; 2.8 percent for Latino students, and 1.8 percent for White students.
Twice the percentage of Asian and White students, three times the percentage of Latino students and more than four times the percentage of Black students graduate from the New York City schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
For Philadelphia, we found the following for NAEP Grade 8 Reading percentages at or above grade level: Forty-four percent for Asians; nine percent for Black students; 11 percent for Latino students; and 26 percent for Whites. And this for high school graduation rates: Eighty percent for Asians; 65 percent for Black students; 53 percent for Latinos students; and 71 percent for Whites. Dividing these high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we find these ratios: Two-point-eight for Asians; 6.9 for Black students; 4.6 for Latinos; and 2.8 for whites.
Nearly three times the percentage of Asian and White students, almost five times the percentage of Latino students and nearly seven times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Philadelphia schools as are reading at grade level in eighth grade.
For Chicago, we found the following for the three racial/ethnic groups for which we have NAEP Grade 8 Reading percentages at or above grade level: Thirteen percent for Black students; 24 percent for Latino students; and 62 percent for White students. And these for high school graduation rates: Seventy-one percent for Black students; 80 percent for Latino students; and 87 percent for White students. Dividing the high school graduation rates by the NAEP reading percentages, we get these ratios: Five-point-three for Black students; 3.3 for Latino students; and 1.4 for White students.
Nearly half again the percentage of White students, more than three times the percentage of Latino students and more than five times the percentage of Black students graduate from the Chicago schools as are reading at grade level in grade 8.
On average, then, these three districts graduate about twice the percentage of Asian and White students than are reading at grade level in middle school, while they graduate three-and-a-half times that of Latino students and five and-a-half that of Black students.
What happens to these recipients of high school diplomas from the Chicago, New York and Philadelphia schools? Do those diplomas mean that they were educated by their schools so as to be career and college-ready?
Nationally, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 83 percent of recent Asian high school completers enrolled in a two or four year post-secondary institution, as did 71 percent of White, 69 percent of Latino and 56 percent of Black recent high school graduates. Given the NAEP data on reading proficiency, there is a reasonable assumption that most graduates from the Chicago, New York and Philadelphia systems, and, in particular, their Black and Latino students, initially enroll in community colleges. Again, according to the most recent NCES report, 34 percent of Asian, 29 percent of White, 30 percent of Latino and 20 percent of Black students graduated within 150 percent of normal time in two-year postsecondary institutions.
Or, in other words, 80 percent of Black, 70 percent of Latino and White and 66 percent of Asian students who attempted an Associates degree were not prepared to succeed. This accords with reports that in New York City, 80 percent of community college students require reading and math remediation.
There is another way of putting this. In Chicago, New York and Philadelphia—and likely in other large cities—the vast majority of Black and Latino are either not graduating or are being handed diplomas that mean little. Those that receive diplomas graduate without necessary basic skills. Of the half to two-thirds who receive diplomas, another half or two-thirds—a quarter or a third of those who began high school—enroll in college. Of those, one-fifth to one-third graduate in the time expected, that is, 5 percent to 11 percent of the entering high school classes.
These college numbers are from national statistics. It is probably worse than that for Black and Latino students in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, as well as for peers in Cleveland, Detroit and Memphis.
The first step toward improving this situation is for districts to be honest about their data, in this case, honest when giving out diplomas. The following steps are well-known: providing resources for lower income and especially Black and Latino students at least as generously as they are provided by their schools and families for students from higher income families. If these things are not done, one can only conclude that those who could do them do not wish to do so.
Down that path is a society divided between a steadily shrinking, and aging, wealthy America and an increasing, and increasingly impoverished, other America: Black, Brown and, yes, White as well.