Minorities drop out when they should drop in

Posted: Mar 10, 2004 12:00 AM

There is an alarming disparity in graduation rates between white students and minority students.

That's the conclusion of the new report, "Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth Are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis," conducted by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and the Urban Institute.

According to the report, 75 percent of white students graduated in 2001. By contrast, only 50 percent of all black students, 51 percent of Native-American students, and 53 percent of all Hispanic students got a high school diploma that year. The study also found that a lack of ethnic diversity in public schools fuels the problem. "In every state," reads the report, "districts with high minority concentrations had lower graduation rates than districts where whites were the majority. This is just another indication that the public education system is failing minority students.

Yearly, The Department of Education (DOE) finesses this fact with all kinds of phony accounting. For example, official measures of graduation rates often fail to include GED enrollees in their calculations. By treating these students as if they never attended high school, the DOE inflates the "official" diploma-completion rate for the state. When GED recipients are included, the dropout rate soars (regrettably) for minority students.

There is a logical progression to dropping out: A lack of education equals a racial achievement gap equals a lack of economic integration equals ugly stereotypes about how minorities are lazy and unintelligent. For these reasons, improving the graduation rate amongst minority students should be considered one of the primary goals of the civil rights movement.

So, why are so many minorities dropping out of high school? "I suspect that part of the problem is that too many in the education establishment believe that African-American students cannot really do much better and so they tolerate a system with incredibly low graduation rates for black students," explained Dr. Jay Greene, a researcher with The Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank. "If expectations for African-American performance were much higher and if African-Americans students had access to the same range of educational options available to affluent whites, including private school options, African-American graduation rates would be much higher," concluded Greene.

This arbitrary shaping of our youth is occurring in poor, urban school districts across the country. According to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, 63 percent of black, inner-city fourth-graders and 58 percent of urban Hispanic fourth-graders are unable to demonstrate a "basic" proficiency in reading.

There is ample evidence that this is an urban problem. But geography is not destiny. Rather than blame families for failure, we need to ensure that the education system offers solutions. A good place to start would be to adjust the graduation formulas so that we receive an accurate accounting of the problem, and then set minimum standards of accountability for our public schools.

As it stands, there is little oversight of graduation rates. "As a result," observes the study, "Thirty-nine states now set a 'soft' Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goal for graduation rates, meaning they can avoid accountability simply by exhibiting even the smallest degree of improvement from one year to the next." This needs to change. Schools that fail to graduate large numbers of minority students must be held accountable under the No Child Left Behind Act. Then, perhaps they will get serious about instituting dropout prevention programs, counseling and other measures that would ensure that public schools work as well for minority students as they do for whites.