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Harvard Study in Fulton County Finds College-Going Gaps Decline Between Races

When college attendance rates among Fulton County Schools students are studied within context of academic and socioeconomic background, prior gaps between white, black and Hispanic decline.

The Fulton County School System recently released a study results that reveal patterns about its high school students and their college readiness.

Conducted by Harvard University’s Strategic Data Project, the analysis combined high school graduation and college enrollment data to determine the number of students who go on to higher education and how successful they are at the collegiate level.

Some of the report’s findings indicate that the gap in college enrollment rates between black students and white students in the Fulton County School System almost disappears once prior achievement and socioeconomic background is accounted for. Similarly, the gap between white and Latino students also decreases, although a gap still remains.

“This is exciting data to have. Never before have we been able to track our students so thoroughly after graduation and see how they are performing and whether our schools prepared them to be college and career ready,” said Superintendent Robert Avossa. “It’s important that we continue to provide equal access to high quality instruction regardless of a student’s economic background, and this study helps illustrate the importance of that.”

The study also is relevant in light of the Georgia Department of Education’s recent changes to graduation rates, which has challenged school districts like Fulton to better prepare students for their college readiness. Fulton is able to use the Harvard data to shape its approach to helping high school students not only fulfill graduation goals, but also complete college.

About the Study and Its Findings

Based at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, the Strategic Data Project developed a set of three Strategic Performance Indicators that challenge common assumptions about college-going patterns in U.S. school districts and provide deeper insight into the health and performance of school districts. The three indicators are: 1) Demographic Factors and College-Going Rates, 2) The High School Effect and 3) The College Match. Graphics illustrating these indicators are attached.

In Demographic Factors and College-Going Rates, analysts compared the college-going rates of students from different racial/ethnic groups, but conducted the analysis to ensure the comparisons were among students with similar prior academic achievement and similar socioeconomic status. When compared in this way, the college enrollment gaps between black and white students disappear. In Fulton, the college-going rates of black students dropped to within 2.1 percentage points of the rate for similar white students. This meaningful information is hidden when overall average college enrollment rates are examined by race for students who have widely varying prior achievement and socioeconomic backgrounds. This analysis also confirmed that the gaps decline significantly between white and Latino students, though a gap remains.

The High School Effect highlights the wide variation in college-going rates for students with similar levels of eighth grade academic achievement who attend different high schools within a district. In Fulton County Schools, college enrollment rates for students with similar academic qualifications varied almost 60 percentage points for different high schools in the district. This indicator suggests the importance of individual schools in meaningfully influencing their students’ likelihood of enrolling in and succeeding at college.

Finally, the College Match uncovers a larger-than-expected group of highly successful students who either do not attend college at all or opt to attend less selective postsecondary institutions. Approximately 10 percent of highly qualified high school graduates in the Fulton County School System “undermatch” in this way. Other analyses confirm that students are more likely to drop out from colleges that are not sufficiently academically challenging to them.

“The analysis shows something really important: if we are sure to look at kids who are academically performing at roughly the same levels and come from similar economic backgrounds, we see essentially no gaps in college enrollment between black students and white students, and we see the gaps for Latino students decline significantly. This suggests that if we can start to close the existing achievement gap, we can also make great progress on closing the college enrollment gap,” said Sarah Glover, executive director of the Strategic Data Project. “Perhaps more importantly, we hope this information – in the hands of superintendents, principals, guidance counselors, parents, and students in our partner districts – will allow all of those people to make decisions that can significantly improve outcomes.”

About Harvard University’s Strategic Data Project

In 2010, the Fulton County School System was chosen to participate in three grants aimed at gathering and analyzing data to help position students for continued success after high school. The largest of the three initiatives focusing on student achievement is the Strategic Data Project.

Operated through the Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the $500,000 grant was awarded to just six school systems nationwide. The Strategic Data Project partners with districts like Fulton County to perform rigorous analysis that frame actionable questions for education leaders. One of these diagnostics focuses on college-going patterns of high school students, documenting patterns of college readiness, matriculation, and college persistence among the partner’s secondary school students. The Project has provided Fulton County Schools with two full-time data fellows to perform statistical analysis, and during this process, the fellows and research team have analyzed 10 years of historical data, allowing them to pull together enormous data sets and assemble and link data across organizational silos.

The Strategic Data Project team will be developing and releasing additional sets of Strategic Performance Indicators at regular intervals throughout the year. A second group of indicators will look at where districts place novice teachers and how well districts retain their most effective teachers. Two additional analyses are in production and scheduled for release in early fall.

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