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Manhattan Institute

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Proficiency 101


Proficiency 101

February 28, 2005
EducationPre K-12
Urban PolicyOther

Pennsylvania’s public high schools graduate a higher percentage of students than the national average, according to a recent study we did for the New York-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. But not everyone is sharing equally in the quality of the state’s schools. Pennsylvania has one of the largest gaps in the nation between the graduation rates of white and minority students.

Nationwide, about 3 out of every 10 students drop out of high school.

In Pennsylvania, about 8 out of every 10 students earn a sheepskin, ranking the state seventh in the nation overall. However, it has the sixth-largest gap between white and African American students out of the 32 states where we are able to calculate graduation rates for both groups. About 86 percent of white students in the Keystone State left high school with a regular diploma in the class of 2002, compared with 58 percent of African American students.

Because of a particularly large population change among Hispanics in the state, we were unable to calculate their graduation rate for the same year. However, we were able to calculate it for the class of 2000, and it was even lower than the graduation rate for African American students: 51 percent.

Unfortunately, things have not been getting better. Pennsylvania’s graduation rate for African American students has held steady over the last few years, increasing only a single percentage point since 1997. Over the last decade, its overall graduation rate has been stagnant as well: It was 81 percent in 1991.

To be sure, the difference in outcomes between white and minority students is hardly a Pennsylvania-specific problem. Low graduation rates among minority students are a national crisis. In fact, Pennsylvania’s graduation rate for African American students actually is slightly above the national average of 56 percent. Be that as it may, the particularly large gap between white and minority students in Pennsylvania indicates that the state should be doing a lot better with its minority students.

Pennsylvania needs to focus reform efforts on schools where a disproportionate number of its minority students are educated. This includes not only the state’s urban centers, but other school districts where minority students make up a sizable portion of the population.

One way to increase graduation rates for minority students in Pennsylvania is for other minority-heavy school districts - or, for that matter, the entire state - to follow Philadelphia’s lead and end "social promotion," the widespread practice of promoting students regardless of their academic proficiency.

Under the current system, students who are struggling with their coursework - a disproportionate number of whom are minority - routinely are promoted to the next grade simply because the school year ends. These students, who didn’t learn the previous grade’s material, fall farther behind when confronted with the next grade’s material. They continue to regress relative to their peers as the curriculum becomes more difficult, making them more likely to give up and drop out.

To end social promotion, Philadelphia has begun requiring students in certain grades to pass a standardized test that demonstrates they are ready for the next grade’s material.

Recent research, also by the Manhattan Institute, provides hope that ending social promotion could help reduce the performance gap between white and minority students. In a study of a similar program that encompasses the entire state of Florida, we found that ending social promotion leads to substantial improvements in student proficiency.

It is hoped that these improved test scores will lead to increased graduation rates down the road. And because their low levels of proficiency make minority students more likely to be socially promoted, it is reasonable to expect that they will be the greatest beneficiaries of ending the practice.

Currently, only the City of Philadelphia is benefiting from the end of social promotion. The program doesn’t even reach all the minority students in the Greater Philadelphia area. There are failing schools in Delaware, Montgomery, Chester, and Bucks Counties that are no less in need of reform. The most promising way to graduate more minority students would be to end social promotion statewide.

While ending social promotion in Philadelphia is likely to go a long way to closing Pennsylvania’s graduation gap, at least in the long term, by itself it won’t be enough. To truly address this statewide problem, Pennsylvanians should consider expanding the program across the state.