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New York Post


Falling Behind West Virginia

November 16, 2003

By Jay P. Greene

IS a black teen better off going to high school in West Virginia or in New York? West Virginia wins - and it’s not even close.

Ask the average New Yorker for his impressions of West Virginia and you’ll probably get a description of an Appalachian wasteland - poverty, coal mines, and rednecks. Yet West Virginia’s high schools leave New York’s in the dust in terms of how well they do for black students.

First, West Virginia high schools are far more likely than their New York counterparts to keep black students in school all the way through graduation.

The graduation rate for black students in New York is a dismal 47 percent, below even the disappointing national average of 51 percent. This is an ongoing problem in New York - its black graduation rate for the class of 1998 was 51 percent. Meanwhile, the graduation rate for black students in West Virginia is a comparatively heartening 70 percent.

That difference translates into thousands of black students with brighter prospects and higher earnings. Not only that, but the next generation of black youth in West Virginia will be so much better off when they get to high school, because parents’ educational success contributes to their children’s as well.

This disparity in graduation rates alone would be enough to prove that West Virginia is the better state for black students. As the economy advances, more and more jobs become closed to high school dropouts. If a student fails to get a high school diploma, nothing can make up for that. (Research shows that alternative certificates like the GED don’t provide much improvement in life outcomes.)

But black students leaving West Virginia high schools are not just more likely than their New York peers to get that door-opening diploma. They’re also more likely to have the academic abilities necessary to go on to college.

There are three things a student must have before he can even apply to a four-year college. First, he needs a high school diploma. Second, he needs to have taken the right courses - math, English, and so on. Colleges require these courses because they hone the skills students need to succeed in college. Finally, he needs to demonstrate basic literacy.

By these three criteria, we estimate that only 16 percent of all black students in New York leave high school meeting the bare minimum requirements to apply to four-year colleges. (The too-low national average is 20 percent for black students.) By contrast, 31 percent of all black students leave West Virginia schools ready for college - just about twice as many as in New York.

Why is the Mountain State so much better for black youth than the Empire State?

One possibility is suggested by the findings of a new book by Manhattan Institute scholars Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning" finds that the gap between black student performance and white student performance is largely the result of both schools and the broader culture failing to hold black students to high academic standards.

The Thernstroms don’t look specifically at New York and West Virginia, but it isn’t hard to guess how their findings might apply. There are definitely a lot of people in New York always willing to make excuses for black student failure. The data seem to indicate that West Virginia is holding its black students to a higher standard, and with outstanding results.

New Yorkers ought to ponder whether it is really better for black students to rationalize their failure rather than insisting on their success. If West Virginia can do it, why not New York?

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