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Research

Racial disparities in the high school graduation gender gap

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In previous work, we showed the wide gender gap in on-time high school graduation rates for the states where data broken down by sex is readily available. Here we repeat this analysis with more up-to-date data for 36 states. We then dig deeper into the intersection of race and sex.  In this article, we analyze graduation data only for the five largest states where the data is readily available by both sex and race with cohort sizes: California, Florida, New York, Michigan and Virginia. Our main findings are:

  • In 2021, in the states with available data about 89% of girls graduated on time compared to 83% of boys—a 6 percentage-point gap­
  • But there are big differences in the gender gap by race in the five large states, with a 9 percentage-point gap between Black and Hispanic girls and Black boys compared to 4-point gender gap for white students and a 3-point gap for Asian students.
  • In some states the on-time high school graduation rates for specific sub-groups are quite low. In Michigan, for example, only 61% of Black boys graduate high school on time, compared to 75% of Black girls, 81% of white boys, and 87% of white girls

The fact that the data for on-time high school graduation rates cannot be analyzed in this way at a national level—because states are not required to report this data by sex—­impedes our understanding of educational disparities by race and gender. Given the growing attention to these issues, for example in the formation of the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, this is a data gap that legislators ought to address.

Girls graduate high school at higher rates than boys

Because the data is not available nationally, we collected high school graduation rates by gender from individual states. Specifically, we examine the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR), the most precise measure of high school graduation rates. As discussed in the previous Brookings analysis on gender gaps in high school graduation, the ACGR adjusts for cohort changes such as emigration, transfer, and death, and is more reliable than its predecessor, the Adjusted Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR).

For the graduating class of 2021, only 36 states have readily accessible graduation data reported separately by sex. Of those 36 states, 30 report cohort sizes, accounting for approximately 74% of students nationally.[1] The 2021 graduation rate across these 28 states was 89.1% for girls and 82.9% for boys. (Of course, 2021 was a year that was impacted by the pandemic, so these results and those that follow should be viewed in that light). Figure 1 shows the ACGR for boys and girls in the 36 states with some graduation data by sex:

figuring showing that girls are more likely to graduate HS on time, 2021

Both the gender gap and the overall level of on-time high school graduation vary widely by state. In New Mexico, boys trailed girls by almost 9 percentage points in high school graduation, whereas in Vermont, the state with the smallest gender gap, boys were behind girls by just over 2 percentage points. But in every single state where data are available, boys’ graduation rates lag those of girls. This is just one of the education disparities discussed in Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.  

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Much bigger gender gaps for Black and Hispanic students

Of the 36 states with readily-accessible data on high school graduation by sex, just 10 of those states provide information by race, sex, and cohort size.[2] Here we focus on the five largest states that have high school graduation by race and sex along with cohort sizes among that group: California, Michigan, New York, Virginia, and Florida. The average graduation rates by race and sex across those five states are shown in Figure 2.

figure demonstrating the gender and race gaps in the HS graduation rate

White and Asian students are more likely to graduate high school on time than Black and Hispanic students. But there is a big difference in the gender gap by race. The gender gap is the highest among Hispanic and Black students at 9 percentage points compared to white students with a roughly 5 percentage point gap in high school graduation. In 2021, 76% of Black boys finished high school compared to 87% of white boys. In Figure 3, we show the graduation rates by race and sex for the five largest states for which we have the data.

figure showing gender gaps in HS grad rate by select states.

The overall picture is of large, overlapping gaps by both race and sex. In every state, the white and Asian graduation rates are higher than those for Black and Hispanic students. But there is significant variation in the intersection of race and gender. In some states, such as Florida and Virginia, Black girls and white boysgraduate at similar rates, even as Black boys fall well below white boys, and white girls have much high rates than Black girls. In other states, such as California, Black students – male and female – are faring much worse, while Hispanic students are doing somewhat better. Of the five states, Florida and Virginia have smaller gender gaps overall.  And in Michigan, only 61% of Black boys finished high school on time in 2021, which is 14 percentage points lower than the rate for Black girls in the state, and 20 percentage points lower than for white boys.

Can we get the data, please?

As we wrote in our previous piece, policymakers are rightly focused on making sure even more young Americans successfully complete their high school education and on further narrowing gaps between various subgroups. To that end, the Department of Education requires states to report high school completion rates for the prior academic year to track progress at a national level.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, requires states and local education agencies (LEAs) to report the ACGR disaggregated by subgroups. Currently the law states that the data must be disaggregated by race, economic disadvantage, disability, foster care, homelessness, and for English learners. But not by sex or gender. The disaggregated data has proven valuable for assessing progress towards more equitable outcomes, especially for marginalized groups. But there is one glaring omission in the subgroups for which data is available: sex. This means we do not know the national high school graduation rates for girls and boys, nor for subgroups by race and gender, for example for Black boys. Considering how the gender gap in high school is also a racial one, it is important for policymakers to push for more complete data.

Requiring states to report their high school graduation data by sex, as well as by sex and race would not impose a new burden: states are collecting the data already. Given the growing concerns of policymakers to address educational inequities, especially considering the impact of the pandemic, it is time to address this oversight.

The Brookings Institution is financed through the support of a diverse array of foundations, corporations, governments, individuals, as well as an endowment. A list of donors can be found in our annual reports published online here. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions in this report are solely those of its author(s) and are not influenced by any donation.


Footnotes

[1]: Approximate measure of the sample covered in our analysis using Department of Education data for 2020-21 cohort size in the US, with the exception of 2019-20 numbers for Washington and 2018-19 numbers for Illinois.

[2]: Of these 11 states, California provides data for male, female and nonbinary students. Due to California being the only state in the sample to provide such data, nonbinary students in California aren’t included in this sample.

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