"In a way, it's hammering home the intersection of race and poverty," said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. Even so, Mr. Balfanz said he was "somewhat surprised by the magnitude" of the racial gap for black students in the mid-to-upper-elementary grades.
Another area of the federal data examined by Education Week was coursetaking and passing rates in Algebra 1. Here, the data suggest that disproportionately low numbers of black 7th and 8th graders take introductory algebra.
Meanwhile, about one-quarter of all 9th and 10th graders failed algebra, the data show, with higher failure rates for black and Hispanic students than for whites and Asians.
Several researchers urged caution in interpreting algebra pass-fail rates, noting that the rigor of algebra courses varies widely and that some schools may be overly generous in giving a passing grade.
'We Need to Know Why'
Since 1968, the Education Department's office for civil rights--charged with protecting students of different races, disabilities, genders, and English-speaking abilities from discrimination--has gathered data from schools and districts.
The most recent data-collection undertaking, for the 2009-10 school year, is the most ambitious to date, including 6,835 school districts, more than 72,000 schools, and more than 42 million public school students. It encompasses about half of the nation's districts, including a substantial proportion of districts with fewer students, including many rural districts.
To paint a picture of educational opportunities and equity, schools and districts are asked dozens of questions, from information on enrollment to access to Advanced Placement classes and incidents of harassment and bullying. Questions about retention and algebra were asked for the first time as part of the latest effort.
Russlynn Ali, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, said in an email that while offices across the federal agency use the data, they are particularly useful when the "OCR provides technical assistance to school districts on civil rights obligations, because our training can be more targeted to the particular needs of the district."
She said the department, which provided some of the raw data to Education Week, hopes parents, community members, and others use the data to monitor schools and address areas of concern before they become major problems.
"The latest [OCR] data show, among other things, disparities in college- and career-readiness, administration of discipline, and teacher resources," she said.
In the next round of data collection, for the 2011-12 school year, the OCR is planning to gather information from all districts nationwide.
Across all grade levels, the data show disparities in retention by race and ethnicity. The highest rate was for black students, at 4.2 percent--or nearly 318,000 students--followed by Hispanics at 2.9 percent and American Indians, at 1.9 percent. For whites, the figure was 1.5 percent, or about 317,000 students.
Retention is a controversial issue among educators and policymakers. Some states, including Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, have policies in place to retain students at particular grade levels, tying it to students' performance on standardized tests.
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