Black, Hispanic and Native American youths nationally stand just a 50-50 chance of graduating on time, according to a study released yesterday.And the research, conducted by the Urban Institute and released in Washington, asserts that high school dropouts generally are undercounted across the nation and that the overall U.S. graduation rate is about 68 percent 15 points lower than federal estimates.
The research, backed by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, serves as added evidence of a wide, chronic gap in achievement between minority and white students in the nation’s schools.
“Clearly we have a national problem here that strikes minority students the hardest,” said Christopher Swanson, an Urban Institute researcher and the author of the study.
The research ranked New Jersey first in the country in the percentage of all students to graduate in 2001, the year under study, with 86 percent. But the rate for blacks was 24 points lower than for whites that year.
The black-white gap in Pennsylvania that year was 35 percentage points, while the overall graduate rate was 75.5 percent, according to the Urban Institute.
“This is not surprising news given all we know about our achievement gap, and precisely why we are taking on such an aggressive K through 12 agenda,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Vicki L. Phillips said yesterday.
Philadelphia showed graduation rates of 41 percent for blacks, 45 percent for whites, 31 percent for Hispanics and 59 percent for Asians in 2001, according to the research.
Paul Vallas, the Philadelphia district’s chief executive officer, said yesterday that he was embarking on a package aimed at increasing the graduation rate for students in the city, which he estimated at between 50 and 60 percent. More than 85 percent of the students in Philadelphia are black and Hispanic.
Vallas said about half the ninth graders in the city repeat ninth grade because they fail two or more courses. This year, all ninth graders had double periods in English and math in an effort to reduce that number.
Vallas said he was also starting programs in middle schools for “overage underachievers,” so that they could catch up and be more likely to finish high school.
The Education Trust, a national research and advocacy group that helped write the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind which went into effect in 2002 agrees that graduation rates for minorities are shockingly low and that the federal government has allowed states to publish data that obscure and understate the problem.
However, Education Trust president Kati Haycock said it was off base to blame the heightened accountability in No Child Left Behind for worsening dropout rates, as some at the Washington news conference did yesterday. Administrators who encourage students with low test scores to drop out are acting unethically, she said.
“Make no mistake, this is about adult choices,” she said. “When professionals in other fields act in bad faith, no one calls for less accountability. In fact, they often call for more.”
Education Trust released its own report yesterday calling for changes in how teachers are assigned. Schools are under pressure to raise achievement and close gaps among groups, Haycock said. “That goal is attainable, and the single most important way to reach it is through quality teachers.”
In the Philadelphia region, increasing numbers of alternative high school programs are being established to aid students who are not likely to graduate “on time” that is, after 13 years of school.
Such a program for seventh through 12th graders opened a year and a half ago in the North Penn district in Montgomery County, with about 60 students enrolled. “We look at all gaps, whether ethnicity, regular education, special education, and work to close them,” said Christine Liberaski, spokeswoman for the 14,000-student district.
Rudolph Karkosak, superintendent of the Kennett Consolidated School District in Chester County, said his district devotes extra teaching resources to work with a large Mexican immigrant population by partnering with community organizations that help students stay in school and by working with groups that give college scholarships to students who want to go to college.
Bristol Borough Superintendent Broadus Davis said he isn’t fond of any study that separates students by race. “I just don’t see where it gets you anywhere.”
Many studies point out an achievement gap, but few look at the reasons behind it, he said.
Racism still exists, he said, but schools are not failing minority students across the board.
The problem lies more with student attitude and parental support, he said, things that are hard to measure.