Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dissecting Graduation Rates: Achievement Gaps in Georgia’s Schools

By Matthew Tarleton, Senior Manager, Research and Projects.

Good news from our home state last week: Georgia’s graduation rate increased by 1.8 percentage points between 2012 and 2013. The bad news: the state is probably still in the bottom five in terms of high school graduation. Although all states have yet to report graduation rates for 2013, last year the state’s graduation rate only exceeded that of Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and the District of Columbia.

Clearly Georgia still has a long way to go. This is no surprise, and not the focus of this blog entry.

Rather, I want to focus on something positive underlying the overall graduation rate and its increase from 2012 to 2013. Data from the Georgia Department of Education show that much of the improvement in the state’s graduation rate can be attributed to a reduction in achievement gaps between white students and minorities.

Education has long been referred to as “the great equalizer.” There is an abundance of evidence showing the relationship between education attainment and income. There is also an abundance of evidence showing the relationship between education and a variety of other outcomes that we expend tremendous government resources attempting to address: health outcomes, crime, and unemployment among them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for a high school dropout was $24,492 in 2011 as compared to $33,904 for a high school graduate. The unemployment rate for dropouts in the same year was 14.1% as compared to 9.4% for graduates. According to the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC/N), a dropout will earn roughly $200,000 less than a graduate in their lifetime. Meanwhile, 82% of prisoners in the United States are high school dropouts. Given the influence of educational attainment, closing the achievement gap may have the single greatest impact on a variety of observed racial/ethnic disparities in such outcomes.

So what exactly happened in Georgia between 2012 and 2013? In 2012, the achievement gap between white students (graduation rate of 78.0%) and black students (61.8%) stood at 16.2%. This was the 27th largest achievement gap among 47 states with comparable data. In 2013, that gap declined to 14.6% as black students experienced more significant improvements in their graduation rates (+2.5%) relative to their white counterparts (+0.9%). The achievement gap between white students and Hispanic students also declined. In 2012, the state’s white-Hispanic achievement gap of 18.2% was the 38th largest achievement gap out of the same aforementioned 47 states. Between 2012 and 2013, the white-Hispanic achievement gap contracted by 2.6 percentage points to 16.5%. Only seven states in the country have a larger minority population as a share of all residents (in other words, only seven have a smaller non-Hispanic white population as a share of all residents). Given its relatively large minority population, continued reductions in achievement gaps can have a tremendous impact on raising the state’s graduation rate relative to its peers.

Researchers have studied the factors that contribute to achievement gaps for decades, with a wide variety of explanations emerging. Some point to underlying differences in socioeconomics for different races and ethnicities, with socioeconomic disadvantages potentially reflecting comparatively limited access to educational resources. Higher rates of single-parent households among blacks and Hispanics have also emerged as a common explanation, with such rates reflecting less time for parental involvement. This issue is compounded for many English Language Learners who not only start at a lower level of English language knowledge but also may lack English-speaking parents at home that are capable of helping students with homework. Other studies have pointed out reinforcing factors that compound the problem over time; low-performing school districts may attract less qualified educators and depress home prices, creating a cycle that exacerbates existing problems. There are many other explanations, both environmental and structural, but there does seem to be consensus that achievement gaps measured by test scores emerge at very early ages, emphasizing the importance of early childhood education and equal access to such early education.

While some state policies can have a significant impact on achievement gaps – perhaps most notably the investment in and promotion of equal access to early childhood education – much of the improvement that we see in statewide outcomes are a result of efforts implemented at the local level. We are frequently working with communities to identify appropriate programs, policies, and initiatives that can support these goals, in Georgia and nationwide. Using the same data from the Georgia Department of Education, I wanted to examine how some of client communities have performed in recent years. Having worked in nearly 20 communities throughout the state, an exhaustive analysis would make for a mighty long blog post. So at the risk of being accused of playing favorites, I am just going to focus on a few here.

We are currently working in Macon-Bibb, where the Bibb County School System has been characterized by a graduation rate near 50% in recent years. In 2012, just 52.3% of students graduated. The data released last week showed a tremendous improvement: the graduation rate rose by 8.8 percentage points to 61.1%. The achievement gap between blacks and whites in the district declined from 13.8 percentage points to 8.6 percentage points. This is an impressive improvement and one that the community will hopefully sustain through hard work and commitment. You can see our research findings and view the community’s “One Macon!” strategy in full when it is released next month by visiting the project website. Without question, there will be a heavy emphasis on improving student outcomes; residents identified low graduation rates as the community’s greatest challenge.

We have also completed work in a number of Metro Atlanta communities in recent years, including but not limited to Cobb and Gwinnett Counties. Achievement gaps between white and black students, and white and Hispanic students, have declined substantially in both communities.

Down in Columbus-Muscogee, the graduation rate for all students surged by 5.3 percentage points from 67.5% to 72.8%, bringing the system above the statewide average. The white-Hispanic achievement gap has improved, but the white-black achievement gap has widened despite a strong surge in the black graduation rate (3.7 percentage points) that simply failed to keep pace with an even larger surge in the white graduation rate (6.4 percentage points).

While there are some great success stories across the state, there hasn’t been much for the entire state to applaud in terms of education for quite some time. Make no mistake – Georgians should not be proud of a statewide graduation rate of 71.5%. But we can find some comfort in knowing that observed improvement sin graduation rates this year have come largely from improvements in reducing our achievement gaps.

And of course, if you are a Georgia community and interested in knowing how your district(s) performed in recent years, give us a call.