Barriers to Closing the Graduation Gap between Black and White Students in California

S. E. Williams


“Poverty is not a proxy for race when it comes to academic outcomes. . . Black students are much less likely to graduate from high school and attend college than White students with the same family income. . . Whereas poor White men graduated high school about 78 percent of the time, Black men whose families had the same income graduated only 70 percent of the time. Disparities for women exist too but were much smaller.”
– Equality of Opportunity Project

California like other states in the nation continues to grapple with a persistent and unforgiving gap that exists in high school graduation rates between Black and White students.

 The disparity is driven by several factors and as such, calls for a multifaceted approach to resolution. While the limitations and stigmas of poverty play a role, a study by the Equal Opportunity Project demonstrated that when economics are not a factor, often the graduation disparity still exists. These results pointed to race not poverty as a key driver in graduation attainment.

 Until recently, drop-out rates also played a key role in the graduation disparity between Black and White students, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the state experienced a waning in drop-out rates for both Black and White students beginning in 2000. 

 From 2000 to 2016, the dropout rate declined from 6.9 to 5.2 percent for White youth and from 13.1 to 6.2 percent for Black youth. This significantly reduced the statistical difference between the races on this issue and as a result, minimized the impact drop-out rates now have on the gap in high school graduation results.

 Chronic Absenteeism also impacts graduation rates. The state’s In School + On Track report for 2016 stressed the known impact of early attendance on student achievement, later school attendance, and high school completion.

 Results for the 2015-2016 school year showed the chronic absence rate among African American K-5 students was 14 percent. This serious chronic absence rate among Black students resulted in their missing 20 percent or more of the school year. Their rate of absenteeism was three times the rate for California students overall. In addition, the chronic absence rate among Black students identified as low-income was even higher at 16 percent.

 Another important factor impacting graduation rates among Black students is the issue of out-of-school suspensions, particularly the significant impact on Black students identified with special needs.  For example, in 2015-16, for every 100 students with special needs, White students lost 31 days to suspension, compared to 82 lost days due to suspension for Black students.

 Although legislation and increased focus has reduced the suspension rate for California students overall in recent years, in 2017 Black students in general were still suspended at a rate that was four times greater than their White counterparts. So, despite the overall decline in suspension rates overall, the ratio in suspension rates between Black and Whites has remained the same.

 No assessment of the gap between Black and White graduation rates in California would be complete without consideration of the state’s “school to prison pipeline.” Study after study has shown that the arrest and incarceration of students, increases the potential for them to drop out and not graduate from high school, even when relevant variables like delinquent behavior, parental poverty, grade retention, and middle school grade-point averages are considered.

 According to the nonprofit Dignity in Schools Campaign, California has the highest rate of incarcerated youth in the nation. For example, the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2013-14 school year showed California K-12 schools reported 22,746 student referrals to police and 9,540 student arrests. Black students are 2.7 times as likely to receive a school-based referral to police as their White peers.

 Another important consideration for any discussion tied to high school graduation success among Black students was revealed in a body of research highlighted by the education publication EdSource which suggested, “having teachers that mirror the racial and ethnic diversity of their students can have an impact on how well their [Black] students do academically.”

 As further noted by the Learning Policy Institute, “teachers of color boost the academic performance of students of color” on measures that include improved reading and math scores and importantly, graduation rates and aspirations to attend college.

 Data also highlights the important role counselors can play in student achievement, yet the student-to-counselor ratio in California is the highest in the nation and more than double the national average. The state ranks last in the priority it has placed on staffing school counselors even though it is proven that effective counseling programs are an important element in improving student achievement, including their contribution to the personal and academic success of students.

 These are just a few of the myriad of issues Black students face as they push forward and navigate their way to a high school diploma–yet, these factors only scratch the surface. Consider the faces of Black youth counted among the state’s homeless population, those trapped in the state’s challenged foster care system as well as the thousands whose parents are among those disproportionately confined in the state’s criminal justice system and locked away from their children.

 Whether attending school in one of the state’s urban communities or any of its far flung rural areas, too many Black students on their way to earning high school diplomas by completing their homework, participating in class and passing required tests, also find themselves navigating systemic racism, unrelenting discrimination, persistent economic inequality and poverty and overly aggressive policing while in  some instances, also struggling with homelessness, incarcerated parents and/or their own special needs.  

 In July, reflecting on California’s 2017 graduation rate results, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson wrote, “As in previous years, disparities in graduation rates continue.” He further acknowledged much work needs to be done to narrow what he identified as the “pernicious, persistent” achievement gap once again reflected in the state’s 2017 graduation rates. There was a prominent 14+ point gap—the graduation rate for White students was 87.3 compared to 73.1 for Black students.