B. Massachusetts: Race, Ethnicity and Education
Massachusetts: Race, Ethnicity and Education.
The state of Massachusetts is known for its progressive politics, wealth and world-class higher education institutions. It was no surprise when Massachusetts public schools, as usual, out-performed national averages in the 2022 Reading tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). There were, however, quite disparate and unusual results when we look more closely at racial, ethnic and income factors.
NAEP is a federal program that measures student achievement at three grades (4, 8, 12) across a range of skills, subjects and variables. Student achievement at grade 8 is a particularly important educational indicator. Students who have not been taught basic skills in grade 8 may have difficulty acquiring them later. Students in grade 8 who are found to be reading at the NAEP “below Basic” level are not likely to be able to make much use of written materials in school, or later at work, or to use those skills to contribute to public finances, or in everyday and public life. Students who demonstrate Proficient or Advanced reading skills have mastered these sufficiently to put them to use in further educational and life contexts: college and university study, meaningful careers, the ability to pass on to their children the advantages they have obtained.
The following is an analysis of recent Massachusetts educational achievement primarily as measured by NAEP. On the 2022 NAEP assessment 77% of students in grade 8 in Massachusetts read at least at the “Basic” level, compared to the national average of 70%. As impressive as this is, it was a considerable decline in results for Massachusetts students. The high point for Massachusetts middle school students in Reading achievement was reached on the 2017 NAEP assessment, when an extraordinary 85% read at least at the Basic level and 50% tested either Proficient or Advanced. As a matter of fact, the 2022 results were the worst since at least 1998, which is far back as NAEP records run. Considering all Massachusetts grade 8 students in public schools, the post-COVID decline in reading achievement scores was a continuation of a trend, not a break.
These results were similar on the Mathematics assessment. In 2022, 70% were at or above grade level. In 2013, 86% percent were at or above grade level in grade 8 Mathematics. The 2022 Massachusetts Mathematical results were the worst since 1996 (tied with those for 2000).
NAEP allows a closer analysis of student achievement by disaggregating results for a number of variables. In the absence of countervailing influences, such as high quality public schools, family income, for example, is widely believed to be a determining factor for student educational achievement. The family income indicator used by NAEP is eligibility for the National School Lunch Program. Current income eligibility requirement for a family of four is an annual income of less than $51,338, for reduced price meals, and $36,075 for free meals. The median household income in Massachusetts is $84,385. Disaggregating 2022 NAEP assessment results for Massachusetts by family income, 64% of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (both free and reduced price lunch) were at least at grade level, as were 87% of ineligible (higher family income) students. This compares to national figures of 58% and 79%, respectively.
In other words, NAEP found that in 2022 one-third of grade 8 students in Massachusetts from lower income families were not taught to read at grade level, while all but 13% from higher income families were taught to read at grade level.
There was no change between the 2019 (pre-pandemic) and the 2022 (post-pandemic) assessments for either those eligible and those ineligible for the National School Lunch Program in Massachusetts. However, once again, a decline had taken place earlier for both groups, between the 2013 and 2019 assessments. On the 2013 assessment, 93% of grade 8 students from higher income families had been taught to read at grade level or above, as had 71% of their peers from lower income families.
It appears that another influential variable is the race or ethnicity of students. NAEP uses only four primary groupings, all of which are problematic. For example the category “Asian/Pacific Islander” in Massachusetts includes Asian Indian (total population 86,775), Cambodian (29,526), Chinese (149,236, including Taiwanese), Filipino (12,219), Japanese (10,119), Korean (26,421), Pakistani (5,979), Vietnamese (47,240) and other smaller groups resident in the state. Those who were foreign born included 60,090 Asian Indians (69%), 16,485 Cambodians (56%), 102,737 Chinese (69%), 8,849 Filipinos (74%), 7,312 Japanese 72%), 18,702 Koreans (71%), 3,684 Pakistani (62%) and 32,388 Vietnamese (69% foreign born). In Massachusetts, “Asian” is a majority immigrant population from a wide variety of cultures about which it would be inadvisable to generalize. Something similar could be said for the categories “White,” “Hispanic,” and “Black.”
But as those are used in by NAEP and other analyses, they will be used here. There are 5,200 Asian/Pacific Islander students in grade 8 in Massachusetts, 16,500 Hispanic students, 6,800 Black students and 40,600 White, non-Hispanic students. This is a quite unusual distribution among the students who are not non-Hispanic White, with nearly as many Asian/Pacific Islander students as Black students. Nonetheless, disaggregating grade 8 reading NAEP results by race and ethnicity, as presently defined by NAEP, there is the same pattern between 2003 and 2022 for Black, White and Hispanic students, with a particularly sharp decline in the percentage of Hispanic and Black students reading at grade level or above between 2017 and 2022. Results for Asian/Pacific Islander students in 2022 were 89% at or above grade level reading, a decline from 93% in 2017 and 2019. In 2022, 83% of White students in Massachusetts grade 8 were at or above grade level in reading, down from 91% in 2013. 63% of Black students in Massachusetts were at or above grade level in eighth grade in 2022, compared to 52% nationally. Results for Hispanic students in Massachusetts, 62% at or above grade level in 2022, were much closer to national results (60% at or above grade level).
While both the great majority of Asian and non-Hispanic White students in grade 8 in Massachusetts were taught to read at least at the level expected in 2022, more than one-third of their Hispanic and Black peers were not.
Combining race/ethnicity and income indicators, scores for students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (lower family income) Asian students fell from 92% in 2017 to 86% in 2019 to 78% in 2020. Scores of Hispanic students from similarly low income families fell from 2017 to 2019 (61% at or above Basic to 55%), then improved slightly in 2022 (58% at or above Basic). Scores of eligible Black students also improved from 59% at or above Basic in 2017 to 62% in 2019 and 2022. Scores of eligible White students fell from 83% in 2011 to 72% in 2019 to 69% in 2022. The 3 percentage point improvement in the results for Black students eligible for the National School Lunch Program between 2017 and 2020 while all others declined (14 percentage points for Asian students, 6 for White students and Hispanic students), is notable.
Scores for ineligible, more prosperous, Asian students were unchanged, at 94% in 2017, 2019 and 2022, but showed a decline from 97% in 2009. Scores of ineligible Hispanic students fell from 2017 to 2019 (82% at or above Basic to 73%), then improved slightly in 2022 (75% at or above Basic). Scores of ineligible Black students improved from 72% at or above Basic in 2017 to 79% in 2019 and fell in 2022 to 66%. Scores of ineligible White students fell from 92% in 2017 to 90% in 2019 to 89% in 2022. There does not seem to have been a general trend either up or down between 2017 and 2022 among these Massachusetts students from higher income families.
The gaps between students of the same race/ethnicity in 2022 between those eligible for the National School Lunch Program and those, from more prosperous households, who are ineligible in 2022 were: Asian—16 percentage points; Black—4 percentage points; Hispanic—17 percentage points; White, non-Hispanic—20 percentage points. Family income appears to have a minimal effect on Black student achievement in Massachusetts in 2022, while the effect had been considerable in some earlier years.
In addition to other factors, parental education level may influence student learning achievement. In 2017, nationally, 66% of students who reported that their parents were high school graduates (only) scored at or above Basic (grade level) on the NAEP reading scale, while 73% of such students in Massachusetts did so. On the following assessment (2019), 60% of grade 8 students nationally whose parents were reported as high school graduates read at or above grade level, while their peers in Massachusetts did so at 66%. And in 2022, the gap in the results widened, with 56% nationally and 67% in Massachusetts reading at or above grade level, a slightly higher percentage than in 2019.
College-educated parents can provide the equivalent of an extra 30% of instruction to their students in the form of help with home work and extra-curricular educational activities. In 2017, nationally, 84% of students who reported that their parents were college graduates scored at or above Basic (grade level) on the NAEP reading scale, while 90% of such students in Massachusetts did so. On the following assessment (2019), 81% of grade 8 students nationally whose parents were reported as college graduates read at or above grade level, while their peers in Massachusetts did so at 89%. And in 2022, there was a continuing decline in results to 79% nationally and 85% in Massachusetts.
In 2020 NAEP found there was not a meaningful number of Asian students in Massachusetts whose parents had not graduated from college. Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that 98% of this sample of Asian students were at or above grade level in grade 8 reading. 71% of Massachusetts grade 8 non-Hispanic White students whose parents only graduated from high school read at or above grade level in 2020, as did 88% of those whose parents graduated from college. This compares with 63% of their Black peers whose parents graduated from high school and 68% whose parents graduated from college. Among Massachusetts Hispanic students in grade 8, 59% of those whose parents graduated from high school alone read at or above grade level, as did 65% of those whose parents graduated from college. In other words, parental education accounted for a 17 percentage point spread for White students, but only a 5 percentage point spread for Black students and a 6 percentage point spread for Hispanic students.
There appears to have been a minimal home educational environment influence on achievement for Black and Hispanic students as compared to White students in Massachusetts. One reason for this in other places, such as New York City, is a strongly negative school quality effect in de facto segregated school systems. An educationally rich home environment in such cases can be simply overwhelmed by a sufficiently educationally impoverished school environment.
The Census provides numbers by educational achievement level. Of the 451,094 Asians in Massachusetts, 43,351 were undergraduates and 24,453 were in graduate school: together, these were 49% of those enrolled in all levels of education. Among Asians 25 years of age or higher, 62% have Bachelor’s degree as do 28% of Black residents age 25 and higher, 21% of Hispanic residents age 25 and higher and 46% of the White population of the state age 25 and higher. (In the United States as a whole, 40% of those enrolled in school were in college or graduate school and 33% of adults age 25 and higher have Bachelor’s degree or more.)
The Census also provides a refinement of the category “Asian.” In Massachusetts, 61% of Asian Indian residents over age 25 have graduate degrees. An additional 28% have Bachelor’s degrees. 40% of Chinese residents have graduate degrees. An additional 26% have college degrees. 12% of Black residents have graduate degrees. An additional 20% have college degrees. 22% of White, non-Hispanic, residents have graduate degrees. An additional 27% have college degrees alone. 9% of Hispanic residents have graduate degrees. 14% have Bachelor’s degrees. In other words, most adult Asian Indian and Chinese residents of the state are college educated as well as close to half of the White, non-Hispanic residents, but only one-third of adult Black residents and less than a quarter of Hispanic residents.
It is possible, then that there is an educational feed-back loop in Massachusetts as well as elsewhere: levels of educational achievement in the public schools lead to levels of post-secondary achievement, which, in turn, influence the levels of education achievement for the next generation.
Boston is the eleventh most segregated metropolitan area in the United States, rated as “highly segregated” by a Brown University study. The city’s median household income is $79,000 (White, $108,000; Black, $56,000; Asian, $60,000; Hispanic, $42,000), considerably under the state average of $90,000
There are 338 Asian, 1,441 Hispanic, 939 Black and 437 White, non-Hispanic students in grade 8 in the Boston public schools. That is, 7% of the Asian and 6% each of the Hispanic and non-Hispanic White students in the state, but 21% of the Black students. Black educational achievement in the Boston public schools has a disproportionate effect on state-wide outcomes for that group.
In 2017, 60% of Black students in grade 8 in Boston were found to read at or above grade level, as were 63% of Hispanic students; 89% of White, non-Hispanic students were brought to that skill level, as were 88% of Asian students. In 2019 these numbers were, again, 60% for Black students, and again 88% for Asian, but showed a decline to 56% for Hispanic and to 86% for White, non-Hispanic students. Following the pandemic, in 2022, just 51% of Black students and 54% of Hispanic students read at or above grade level in grade 8, as did 84% of White, non-Hispanic Students and 83% of Asian students. This was ten percentage points below the state average for Black and Hispanic students, but only five percentage points and no difference for White, non-Hispanic and Asian students, respectively.
The Boston public schools, segregated by race, ethnicity and income, do not have a meaningful number of White students whose lower family incomes make them eligible for the National School Lunch Program. Of those ineligible, those from more prosperous households, 92% were brought to grade level in reading in grade 8 according to the 2022 NAEP assessment. Boston schools do not have meaningful numbers of either Black or Hispanic students whose higher family incomes make them ineligible for the National School Lunch Program. Of those eligible, about half of both groups (49% and 52%) were taught to read at grade level in grade 8 according to the 2022 NAEP assessment.
Black and Hispanic students in Boston have just over even odds for learning to read at grade level in grade 8 in 2022.
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All Massachusetts students are taught to read better than their national peers as a group or when considered by race and ethnicity, family income or parental education. In particular, children of the highly educated and prosperous Asian communities do well in school, as do most non-Hispanic White students. In Massachusetts, the advantages of race appear to count for more than those of class. Non-Hispanic White students from lower income families are taught to read to a higher achievement level than Black students from higher income families and those whose parents were college graduates. Educationally high quality home environments can supplement, but cannot replace, high quality schools. It is troubling that in this comparatively wealthy state, with among the highest per student expenditures in the nation, there is a twenty percentage point gap between non-Hispanic White students and their Black and Hispanic classmates and an even greater gap between those and Asian students. Part, but not all, of this issue can be traced to the Boston public schools. However, it is endemic through out the state.
There are approximately 17,000 students in grade 8 in Massachusetts schools who cannot read at grade level, including nearly one-third of Black and Hispanic students. This is tremendously harmful for those students and, frankly, a disgrace for a state that was in founded nearly four hundred years ago on an implicit assumption of literacy. What is to be done? In the absence of a major increase in funding, one approach, pioneered some years ago in Montgomery Country, Maryland, is to aggressively shift resources to those students most in need of those resources: class sizes and teacher assignments adjusted to the needs of students; non-educational activities reduced; landscaping expenses minimized, etc. There are other approaches, and, of course, even in Massachusetts, school funding can—and should—be increased. Or this situation could be allowed to continue. It is a political, as well as an ethical, choice.