In Illinois, virtually all 3rd graders retained were black or Hispanic, with about four-fifths African-American. Eighty-two percent of 3rd graders retained were black and 18 percent Hispanic. (Almost all students retained were in Chicago, the data show, which has a policy for holding back 3rd graders based in part on test scores.)
Florida also dominated in retentions at the 7th grade, with 4,315 reported, compared with 2,655 in Texas, and fewer than 1,000 in California, Illinois, and New York.
But the figures for 9th grade tell a different story. Texas and California reported the most students retained, 30,660 and 26,260, respectively. In both cases, the vast majority of those students were Hispanic. In Florida, the survey found that 13,675 students had to repeat 9th grade, but only about one-quarter of those held back were Hispanics, roughly in line with the reported K-12 enrollment of Hispanics.
In the total K-12 data set, Florida's student population was 2.6 million, compared with 5.7 million for California and 4.2 million in Texas.
Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said that he sees some reason for concern in the retention data, suggesting there may be a need to re-examine retention policies if they disproportionately affect minority students.
The data Education Week examined for Algebra 1 seem to suggest uneven enrollments across racial and ethnic groups in the middle school years, when some students take algebra.
In grades 7-8, about 11 percent of students taking Algebra 1 were black, while in the full data set, black students represented about 18 percent of the total in the data set. The enrollment rate for Hispanic students was more closely aligned with overall representation in the population: 21 percent enrolled, compared with 24 percent in the total student sample across all grade levels.
The differences appeared fairly small for passing rates. About 86 percent of white students in grades 7-8 passed, compared with 79 percent of black students and 78 percent of Hispanics.
Recent NAEP data reveal large achievement gaps in 8th grade math. They show that 49 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students scored below basic, compared with 16 percent of white students.
Experts note that, typically, students who take algebra in middle school are more advanced and prescreened, though California has taken steps to ensure that most middle schoolers take the subject.
Meanwhile at grades 9-10, about 24 percent of all students failed algebra, the OCR data show. And here, the differences among racial and ethnic groups were more pronounced. About 81 percent of white students passed, compared with 70 percent of both black and Hispanic students.
As for students in grades 11-12, the data show that a greater share of black students, 78 percent, passed algebra than any other group.
Tom Loveless, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, said district data on algebra passing rates need to be taken with a grain of salt.
"Passing rates are a poor indicator of whether students have mastered algebra or any other subject matter," he said. "We know that students are often passed along who not only do not know algebra, but who also do not know content that they should have known years before. A good end-of-course test is the best indicator of learning."
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