At a time when news about educational achievement gaps is mostly negative, it’s worth noting even a glimmer of positive change. Recent data from the respected National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicate that for the first time in four decades, one of the gaps is nearly closed.
An NCES study found that the high-school-or-equivalent completion rate for the nation’s African-American 18- to 24-year-olds is not measurably different from that of whites in the same age group. In the years between 1977 to 2016, the rate among whites was consistently and significantly higher. But the 2017 data shows only a 1 percentage point difference, with white student completion at 94.8%, compared with 93.8% for black students.
NCES reported a promising trend of more black and Latino teens and young adults understanding the need for a high school diploma, GED or some other form of educational certificate. It means that fewer young people are doing without some kind of post-middle-school education.
Joel McFarland, NCES statistician and an author of the report, told an editorial writer that the disparity between black and white young people has narrowed over time. “It’s within a pattern of findings that we’re seeing across a lot of different data sources — it’s pretty clear that high school completion rates have increased and dropout rates have decreased.”
McFarland said NCES collects and reports the data, but as a nonpartisan, independent agency it mostly leave the interpretation to other education researchers and scholars. He acknowledged that significant disparities still exist for the traditional four-year graduation rates that are based on state and school district public school information.
Data on 18- to 24-year-olds is collected differently — through a combination of census and other sources. And the older group includes young adults who have received GEDs, been homeschooled or who have completed other post-high school certification programs.
It’s an encouraging sign, but it still doesn’t eliminate continuing achievement disparities from preschool to grade 12. The strong need to work on those gaps remains.
A fall 2019 Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis study showed test score differences in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math proficiency as high as 30 percentage points between some students of color and poorer students versus their more affluent white peers. Those persistent, wider-than-average disparities prompted the bank officials to call Minnesota’s gaps a “crisis.”
Based on the study, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari and retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page recently announced an effort to change the state’s Constitution to guarantee the right to a quality public education for all children. They’re hoping to make education an undeniable, fundamental civil right.
Though much work remains to narrow and close education gaps — especially in Minnesota — the NCES study indicates some progress among young adults across the country.