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Suhyun Suh, Ashley Malchow and Jingyo Suh

Excerpted from:  Suhyun Suh, Ashley Malchow and Jingyo Suh,  Why Did The Black-White Dropout Gap Widen in the 2000s?,  37 (4)   Educational Research Quarterly 19 (July 1, 2014)

Graduation from high school marks the completion of the first big obstacle in a young person's life. Though the nation's high school graduation rate reached a historic high recently, there are still many youths who do not get high school diplomas or General Educational Developments  (GEDs)  until the age of 24. For those students who do not complete their high school education, there may be many consequences later in life. Students who drop out suffer from reduced lifetime earnings and lost opportunities in labor markets. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are also significant social and economic costs to the rest of the nation .
It is widely acknowledged in the literature that Black students have a higher probability of dropping out than their White counterparts, and the gap is as old as the nation itself . Numerous studies have examined factors contributing to dropout, which cover diverse domains of person, family, school, and community . More specifically, some authors  have examined the sources of the dropout gap between and within student racial groups and have identified variables contributing to dropout gaps. They identified being held back, number of suspensions, time spent on homework, gender, family composition, and parental involvement as discriminating factors between different racial groups. Among the variables, suspensions, being held back, and parental involvement most accounted for creating a gap between White and Black student groups.
US students have made considerable educational attainments and the overall event dropout rate declined substantially over the past few decades. The downward trend in event dropout rates was evident in the change from 6.1% in 1972 to 3.5% in 2008 . However, according to these authors, the decreases happened at different times over this 36-year period for Black and White students. White youth showed a decrease in event rates from 1972  (5.3%)  through 1990  (3.3%) , an increase from 1990  (3.3%)  through 1995  (4.5%) , and another decrease from 1995  (4.5%)  through 2008  (2.3%) . Black youths also experienced a decline from 1972  (9.5%)  through 1990  (5.0%) , and an increase from 1990  (5.0%)  through 1995  (6.4%) , but their event dropout rates fluctuated and no improvement was noted between 1995  (6.4%)  and 2008  (6.4%) . The BlackWhite gap in event dropout rates over the decades was inconsistent: The rates decreased till early 1990s and then went back up in 2000s.
Overall status dropout rate showed a similar trend. A status dropout rate, in general, refers to the proportion of 16- through 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential . The status dropout rate substantially decreased from 1972 to 2008, changing from 14.6% to 8.0%. The rate for White students fell from 12.3% to 4.8% and the rate for Black students declined from 21.3% to 9.9% over the same period. This statistic suggests that the difference between the status dropout rates of White youth and Black youth narrowed with a dramatic decrease from an average of 9.28% in the 1970s to 5.54% in the 1980s with no additional measurable change occurring until 2008 . However, according to another statistic, the Black-White gap in dropout rates increased from 4.2% in early 1980s to 6.2% in 2000 and stayed in the 4-5% range until 2009 .
The current authors analyzed the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, NLSY79 and NLSY97 data to leant about dropout trends of the two cohorts. The preliminary analysis of NLSY79 showed that the dropout rate was 15.2% for White students and 17.1% for Black students, resulting in 1.9% racial gap. NLSY97 data shows that the dropout rate was 9.1% for White students and 14.4% for Black students resulting in a widening of the Black-White dropout gap by 3.4% from the 1980s to the 2000s. Depending on how dropout rates are measured, reports can be inconsistent. However, from the data provided above we can conclude that the gap is no longer shrinking, but widening even if the trend is more or less fluctuating.
While researchers have paid significant attention to the narrowing of the Black-White achievement gap in the 1980s and early 1990s , few researchers have successfully addressed the widening of the gap in more recent years. This research focuses on trend changes in the Black-White dropout gap, beginning with the first signs of narrowing that occurred in the 1980s and continuing until the trend began to reverse in the first decade of the 2000s. Using decomposition analysis, this research also investigates potential causes of the widening Black-White dropout gap during the 2000s.
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A comparison of the racial dropout gaps for the NLSY79 and NLSY97 cohorts reveals noticeable differences. Most of the socioeconomic and behavioral variables contributed to a narrowing of the Black-White dropout gap. Black students made relatively more improvements than White students over the approximately two decades. Nonetheless, the gap widened during the past two decades  (1980s-2000s)  due to changes in school policy and youths' environment. It appears that factors that have been considered to impact the BlackWhite gap in the past do not fully explain the current racial gap. We limit our discussion to factors which contributed to the recent increase in the gap.
First, suspension was the characteristic that contributed most significantly to the widening of the gap. Researchers found that Black students tend to receive stiffer penalties than White students. Suspension is one of the more severe forms of penalties used to discipline students. Not only are students excluded from classroom learning while suspended, they may be unsupervised at home and thus more likely to get in trouble in the community . Dropout rates are consistently much higher for suspended students and research indicates that some schools actually use suspensions to push troublesome students out of school .
Researchers have proposed the possibility that education policies  (discipline)  may have impeded Black students' progress toward closing the gap since the adoption of the Gun Free School Act of 1994 and the No Child Left Behind  Act of 2001. Zero tolerance policy under the Gun Free School Act disproportionately affected disciplinary action for Black students . Under NCLB, schools and local school districts were required to report Adequate Yearly Progress  every year. Troublesome students may hinder AYP and thus, schools have strong incentives to exclude low-performing students from school through strict discipline for offenders of school policy as a means of achieving AYP .
Traditionally, Black students are more likely to be suspended for committing any offense. According to the US Department of Education report , Black students comprised 17% of the U.S. student population, but accounted for 34% of out-of-school suspensions. According to the data collected nationwide by the Education Department's office for civil rights from the 2009-10 school year, Black students were 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their White peers . This pattern of discipline dramatically worsened between the 1980s and 2000s, during which time the portion of Black students suspended from school increased by 11.4%, while for White students the same measure increased only 0.9%. While student test scores have been increasing since NCLB took effect in 2002 and the test scores of minority students have increased the most, critics argue that schools pushed troublesome students out of school to achieve AYP .
Second, the influence of peers has become more important to the racial school dropout gap between Black and White youth. The portion of peers who planned to attend higher education was nearly the same for Black and White students in the NLSY 79 cohort, compared with the 8.8% gap in favor of White students in the NLSY97 cohort This result may indicate that peer pressure for attaining a higher degree was decreased among Black students in the NLSY97 cohort, leading them to sustain less interest in staying in school. Friend's influence on adolescent's behavior as well as their attitudes towards school have been well documented. Peer factors were good predictors of whether students would drop out . After conducting interviews with 8,531 transferred or dropped out students, Kim et al.  found that the biggest influence on students was whether their friends had dropped out of school. Other research on peer influence shows that students isolated from peers lack positive relationships and eventually become disengaged and on the path toward dropping out . This may also influence the impact of suspensions on dropping out as students who are suspended from school are excluded from the school environment, and therefore isolated from their peers.
Third, the role of biological parents altered the BlackWhite dropout trend over the last two decades. According to the National Principals Association , 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes and children with fathers who are involved in their life are 70% less likely to drop out of school The portion of adolescents living with their biological parents was 49.6% for Black youth and 74.5% for White youth in the NYSY79 cohort. For NLSY97, the rate changed to 26.3% for Black youth and 57.8% for White youth, resulting in a widening of the gap from 24.9% to 31.5%. Over the last century, increases in divorce and unmarried childbearing have changed American family life significantly. The majority of youths from one-parent families live with their biological mother. Thus, living in one-parent families implies living without a biological father for many youths. The father's absence hurts the educational success of youths of all races. Research consistently shows that fatherless children or children who live with only one parent are more likely to drop out of school  1993) . Our investigation proves that youths who grew up apart from one of their biological parents were less likely to finish high school and attend college. The differences in this study are significant enough to support the claim that the father's absence is a major cause of the widening of the racial gap in dropout rates .
Fourth, school alienation and poor student-teacher relationship is another major cause of high school dropout . Studies have pointed out the importance of student-teacher relationships to academic achievement . Poor studentteacher relationships can contribute to negative feelings toward school and eventually lead to school dropout. Alva and Padilla  suggested that student-teacher relationships are particularly important for minority high school students. Minority students often reported that the perception of teacher ethnic bias was the main cause of disengagement from school . Though the role of the student-teacher relationship is relatively weak in the cohort analyses for the NLSY79 and NLSY97 datasets, the impact on the trend over time implicates it as one of the main contributors to the Black-White dropout gap. This indicates that although perceptions of teacher ethnic bias are not prevalent, such perceptions do exist and partially impact school dropout
Some improvements in the Black-White dropout gap were made in the 1980s. Since peaking in the late 1980s and staying level for about a decade, the gap began widening in tbe late 1990s-during a period of strong school reform efforts. Since 2000, the gap has stabilized in the 4-6% range. This research suggests that the magnitude and direction of factors leading to dropout change over time. Decomposition analysis also suggests that the gap would have been narrowed by 2.62% if all conditions had remained the same. This research identifies a few factors which contributed to the widening of the Black-White gap: school suspension policies, peer impact, fatherless households, and the student-teacher relationship. Due to on-going and potential future changes in familial and societal contexts and youth cultures, a new research model and interpretation arc needed for a better understanding of the Black-White dropout gap. Beginning in the 2009-10 school year, the U.S. Department of Education adopted a common measure designed to rigorously assess four-year high school graduation rates . This new nationwide initiative for measuring dropout rates is expected to provide researchers with rich and credible data to further our understanding of dropout issues.