Two new reports highlight areas for improvement when it comes to ensuring every child has access to a high-quality education. ftmeade/Flickr

As the nation’s student body becomes less white, we face a dilemma about how to make sure young people of all backgrounds have access to a quality education.

I use the word dilemma because, although they make up a declining share of students nationwide, white students continue to outperform their black and Latino peers. Additionally, school segregation is growing.

Two new reports attempt to provide both perspective and areas for improvement.

The first report, from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), looks at how the black-white composition of a school relates to the black-white achievement gap. Using 2011 eighth-grade math scores, the report found that white students attended schools that were about 9 percent black on average, while black students went to schools that were closer to 48 percent black. For context, nationally, black students made up 15 percent of the eighth-grade student population that year.

The study is notable because it’s the first that the federal government has conducted on the relationship between the two issues (although academics like Stanford University’s Sean Reardon have looked extensively at what drives the achievement gap).

The NCES report found that test scores were lower in schools with a higher percentage of black students. That proved especially true for black male students, and it was true even when things like socioeconomic status were controlled for.

The report also found, perhaps surprisingly, that more of the gap could be attributed to differences within schools rather than between schools. In schools with zero to 20 percent black students, white students scored 293 on the test while black students scored 268, putting the achievement gap at 25 points. Scores were about 10 points lower for both black and white students at schools with 60 to 100 percent black students. When you account for socioeconomic status, the gap at schools with few black students narrows to 18 points. But the gap did not shrink significantly at schools with mostly black students.

So what’s going on? That’s exactly what Acting NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr wants states, districts, and other researchers to start examining.

“I would like for people to start asking themselves the hard questions about the probable factors that could be contributing to these differences,” Carr told Next America. While Carr is reluctant to say racism is at play, she does think variations in “teacher expectations,” differences in how students are disciplined, and “de facto tracking” are real factors.

The takeaway is that racial isolation is not good for students. “These results kind of shore up that hypothesis,” Carr said, adding that her team plans to look at whether these findings hold true for Latino children as well.

How to stem the spread of school resegregation is a matter of contentious debate. Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times has looked at the positive impact on student learning that can occur when children from low-performing, mostly black schools are permitted to enroll at higher-performing, mostly white schools. Busing kids across town, she reported, ultimately helped the students who had been trapped in low-performing schools with scant resources.

There’s no easy fix, though. Housing policies that have led to concentrated poverty, and partisan politics are at play. But it’s an issue that will come up as Congress debates in the coming months what should be included in the nation’s chief education law. While Republicans have pushed for more state control, civil rights groups have lobbied for protections for students of color. Regardless, as The American Prospect recently noted, isolated “diversity initiatives” are more effective when they are bolstered by broader federal strategy.

The second report, from the nonprofit The Education Trust, looks at graduation rates for students who receive Pell Grants, which are federal grants low-income students can use to help pay for college. A standard refrain among opponents of Pell Grants, which don’t have to be repaid, is that recipients are far less likely to graduate from college, so the money spent is wasted.

The new analysis, the first to make such detailed data publicly available, finds that’s not really true. Pell Grant recipients are only about 5 percent less likely to graduate from college than their wealthier peers.

The report looks at graduation rates at the institutional level, not just on the whole. That’s important because the percentage of Pell recipients varies widely from school to school. More than a third of the 1,149 four-year public and private nonprofit schools examined have smaller gaps or no gaps at all.

“These data deliver a powerful blow to those who question whether taxpayer dollars are being wasted or whether most low-income students are even capable of completing college,” The Education Trust said in a statement.

The critical issue—the reason opponents are able to point to a 51 percent national graduation rate for Pell recipients compared to a 65 percent rate for non-Pell students—is enrollment stratification. Pell students, the analysis finds, are twice as likely to attend a less-selective school with a very low graduation rate.

Professor Caroline Hoxby of Stanford has done significant research in this area, and has found that poor but high-achieving students rarely apply to top schools, even when they are qualified. Those who do apply and enroll, though, are just as likely to succeed as their peers who enroll at less-selective schools.

Hoxby found that sending low-cost, targeted information to students can make a real difference. While groups like The College Board have responded, sending fee waivers and information packets to students, getting Pell recipients into schools where they have more support and a higher likelihood of graduating will take broader work.

Recently, the Obama administration released the College Scorecard, a huge collection of higher-education data that families and policymakers can use to determine which schools are serving poor students. However, the Scorecard relies on federal financial-aid data and doesn’t contain good information on students who don’t seek federal aid to pay for school. The original plan to rate schools was scrapped, and there is not broad support in Congress for tying federal aid to graduation rates.

“[I]f more institutions are to prioritize student success, Congress has work to do, too,” José Luis Santos, The Education Trust’s vice president of higher-education policy and practice, said in a statement. “We urge Congress to hold institutions that receive federal financial aid accountable for enrolling and graduating their fair share of Pell Grant recipients.”

One report looks at eighth graders and one looks at college students, but the overarching theme is accessibility. There is an achievement gap and a graduation gap, but they might be narrowed if the country took steps to limit the opportunity gaps, such as school segregation and concentrated poverty, that disproportionately impact students of color.

This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.

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