Despite some progress, large differences in Kansas educational attainment by race remain

Despite some progress, large differences in Kansas educational attainment by race remain

Recently, increased national attention has been focused on issues of race and social justice, generating a great deal of commentary and reflection in educational circles. Many school districts and organizations, including KASB, have issued statements affirming a commitment to equal opportunity and justice.

Such statements indicate both a dissatisfaction with the current situation and a desire for change. But as the saying goes, you are unlikely to get different results if you keep doing the same things.

I am 60 years old. I can’t remember a time when this nation hasn’t been talking about the ideals of equality, what that means, how we are falling short of those ideals and why. I’ve spent nearly 40 years working for educational groups that say they are committed to those ideals. We are saying it again.

A starting point is to look at the status and progress (or lack of progress) in our educational outcomes. Here is what I have found. Kansas (and the United States) HAVE made progress in narrowing differences by race. Something HAS been working. But that progress has been slow.

These differences are an issue of social justice. They are also an economic issue. Kansas is not producing enough individuals with the higher skills to provide the workforce we need; and individuals without those skills will struggle to earn a living, keep employed and out of poverty. Perhaps most worrying, it becomes an economic trap: children from low-income families are less likely to succeed in school, meaning they will be likely to struggle economically when they become adults with families of their own.

Enrollment Trends; Percentage and Numbers

Kansas public school head count enrollment overall remained stable at around 450,000 from the mid-1990’s to 2006, and since increased to about 500,000. But the racial composition of Kansas students has changed much more dramatically.

Although White students remain the majority, the number of White students has declined from 380,00 to 330,000, or from 85 percent of the total to less than 65 percent. Black enrollment declined slightly, from about 37,000 to 35,000. Hispanic enrollment has quadrupled from about 22,000 to over 100,00. Finally, other groups, including multi-racial students, have increased from 5,000 to almost 50,000.

(Note: there are many different terms used to describe racial and ethnics groups: White, Caucasian, Black, African American, Hispanic, Latino, etc. This report uses whatever name is used in the particular data source. For example, the above chart has the terms used by the Kansas State Department of Education.)

These changes in student enrollment have implications for analyzing overall student achievement in Kansas. Groups that have been less successful on educational measures have been increasing faster than the majority group which has historically had higher achievement.

Adult educational attainment: long term changes

Kansas and the United States have always had large disparities in educational attainment by race. The longest-term measure is completion by high school and bachelor’s (four-year college) degrees by persons over 24.

The earliest data for individual states from the U.S. Census is from 1940, approximately halfway between the end of the Civil War, the emancipation of slaves and the civil rights amendments to the U.S Constitution, and the present day.

In 1940, 29 percent of white Kansans had graduated from high school, almost double the rate of 16 percent of black Kansans.

In 2017, the most recent year posted in the U.S. Digest of Education Statistics, Kansas high school completion for whites was 94.4 percent and for blacks 84.4 percent.

Over those years, Kansas always had higher white high school completion than the U.S. as a whole. Kansas had more than double the national average for black high school completion, but the difference narrowed until 2017, when the U.S. average moved ahead of Kansas for the first time.

In 1940, 4.7 percent of white Kansans had completed a four-year bachelor’s degree, more than double the 2.3 percent of black Kansans. In 2017, Bachelor’s degree completion was 36.9 percent for whites and 21.9 percent for blacks.

Bachelor’s completion for white Kansans was slightly below the U.S. average in 1940 and 1950 but moved slightly higher than the U.S. average in 1960 and has remained there. Bachelor’s completion for black Kansans has consistently been slightly higher than the U.S. average except in 2010.

In nearly 70 years, white high school completion rates more than tripled from 29 percent to nearly 95 percent, while black rates increased fivefold, from 16 percent to 84.4 percent. College completion for white Kansas increased nearly seven times over, from 4.7 to 36.9 percent, and back college completion increased nearly nine times over, from 2.3 percent to 21.9 percent.

Put another way, black high school completion rose from 55.2 percent of white high school completion to 89.4 percent in 2017. Black completion of bachelor’s degrees rose from 48.9 percent of white in 1940 to 59.4 percent in 2017.

Note: the census reports from 1940 only include White and Black races. In more recent years, other groups have been added.

In 2017, Whites had the highest overall high school completion in Kansas, with Asians and Two or more races close behind. Hispanics had the lowest level.

In 2017, Asians had the higher rates of bachelor’s degree completion in Kansas and nationally. In Kansas, Whites were next, followed by Two or more races. Hispanics had the lowest college completion rates.

High school graduation

Adult high school completion is the percentage of everyone in an age group who has completed a high school diploma or equivalent.  The high school graduation rate is the percentage of a particular graduating class that completes a high school diploma with a specific period of time. There are several different formulas that may be used to calculate a graduation rate.

Since 2010, Kansas and other states have been using a formula called the Adjusted Cohort Graduate Rate (ACGR).  The Kansas State Department of Education reports racial and ethnic group rates by males and female. It measures the percentage of each year’s high school freshmen who graduate from high school four years later.

Looking at the three largest racial ethic groups in Kansas, Whites had the highest four-year graduation rates in 2010 and continued to do so in 2019. However, Black and Hispanic Kansans made more progress, particularly non-White females. There is a larger gap between Black and Hispanic males and females than between White males and females.

High school dropouts

The high school dropout rate is another education measure. A drop-out is a student who leaves the school system in grades seven through twelve and either has discontinued schooling or is not known to be continuing; has transferred to a GED program; or transferred to a correctional facility where educational services are not provided.

The dropout rate is not simply the inverse of the graduation rate for several reasons. First, the annual dropout rate is calculated using one year of data, while the graduation rate used four years of data. Second, the dropout rate is calculated on grades seven through twelve, while the graduation rate is based on a cohort of ninth through twelfth grades. Finally, a student who drops out at any point between seventh and twelfth grade could return to school and graduate even if it takes longer than four or five years. (That is a reason the high school completion rate for adults is slightly higher than the graduation rate.)

However, a high percentage of dropouts do not graduate, and the same disparities about racial groups for graduation are found for dropouts.

In 1994, the dropout rates for White males in Kansas was 2.9 percent and for White females 2.4 percent, while the dropout rate for Blacks was over twice as high: 6.1 percent for Black males and 5.5 percent for Black females.  Hispanic dropout rates were even higher.

Twenty-five years later, those rates had been cut by more than half. In 2019, the dropout rate for White males was 1.4 percent and White females 0.9 percent; for Black males 2.8 percent and females 1.8 percent, and for Hispanic males 2.3 percent and females 1.5 percent. As with the graduation rate, Black and Hispanic students have made more progress in reducing the drop-out rate than Whites, but still trail.

State Assessments

As required by federal law, Kansas and other states give state tests in reading and math to all students in public schools in grades three through eight and one high school grade every year (10th grade for reading and math).

Kansas scores students taking the tests at four levels.Level 1 indicates that a student shows a limited ability to understand and use the mathematics or English Language Arts skills and knowledge needed for Postsecondary Readiness. Level 2 indicates that a student shows a basic ability to understand and use these skills and knowledge needed for Postsecondary Readiness. Level 3 indicates that a student shows an effective ability to understand and use these skills and knowledge needed for Postsecondary Readiness. Level 4 indicates that a student shows an excellent ability to understand and use these skills and knowledge needed for Postsecondary Readiness. The goal is to get student to levels three and four to have the widest opportunity for postsecondary success and career options.

The difference among the three major racial/ethnic groups in Kansas is higher on state tests than graduation or dropout rates. When looking at an average of math and ELA scores for all grade levels, about 40 percent of White students score in the top two levels. That is about 2.5 times the rate of Black students and about twice the percentage of Hispanic students score at these levels.

At the other end of the scale, about 23 percent of White students score at the lowest level, compared to about 50 percent of Black students and 40 percent of Hispanic students. Overall, state assessment scores generally declined from 2015 to 2017 or 2018 and improved slightly in 2019. At the lowest level, Black and Hispanic students declined more than White students, then improved more than White students over the past two years.

These results are the average of math and English Language Arts for all grades tested. Results for students in high school, which are tested in math and ELA at grade 10 are lower for all groups, and the gaps are slightly greater.

For White high school students, a little more than 30 percent of White students score in the top two levels, compared to less than 10 percent for Black students and 13 percent of Hispanics.

ACT College Readiness Test

Another measure of educational outcomes is the ACT test, which is measures student preparation or “readiness” for postsecondary studies. Most students take the test as high school juniors but can also take it as sophomores and seniors. Results are provided annually for students in each graduating class, regardless of when those students took the test.

In recent years, approximately 70 to 75 percent of Kansas graduates took the ACT. Those numbers were expected to increase when the Kansas Legislature began providing funding to allow all students to take the test at no cost. The impact of that change was expected to be first report for 2020, but the free tests were not given due to the COVID pandemic.

For decades, ACT has provided “composite scores” for the academic areas of English, Mathematics, Reading and Science. Since 2006, ACT has calculated a “college ready benchmark,” which is a score that indicates the student is likely to be successful in beginning college courses in the areas.

ACT’s report “The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2019” for Kansas finds large disparities by race in the percentage of students meeting those benchmarks. Note the following chart from that report.


About half of White students’ tests met three of four benchmarks, compared approximately 40 percent of students scoring in the top two levels for all grades of the state assessments and about 30 percent on the high school state assessments.

About 20 percent of Hispanic/Latino students met three of four ACT benchmarks, compared about 20 percent in the top levels of the state assessments for all grades and about 15 percent on the high school tests. Finally, about 13 percent of Black students met three of four benchmarks, compared to about 15 percent in the top two state assessment levels for all grades and about 10 percent on the high school tests.

Over the past five years, performance of White, Black, and Hispanic students dropped on the ACT, while Asian student performance increased. (American Indian and Hawaiian/Pacific Island students are such small groups that there is considerable fluctuation from year to year.)

What comes next?

This data shows how different groups are doing on key educational measures in Kansas. School leaders can find information on their own school districts for graduation rates, drop-out rates, state assessments and ACT scores from your district or the Kansas State Department of Education’s Data Central portal.

What it doesn’t show is WHY these differences occur, and what to do about them. That will be the subject of future consideration.