Key Takeaways

Overall performance levels are low, though there is some evidence of improvement.

On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 18% of African-American fourth graders were found to be proficient in reading and only 19% scored proficient in math. The eighth grade numbers were even worse, with only 16% of African-American students rated proficient in reading and only 13% rated proficient in math. These percentages are up substantially from the early 1990s, when only 8% of African-American fourth graders scored proficient in reading and 1% scored proficient in math, and 9% of African-American eighth graders scored proficient in reading and 5% scored proficient in math. Some states have demonstrated significant progress: the District of Columbia’s student population, for example, is made up of almost 74% African-American students and has witnessed the most gains nationally. In 1990, only 1% of the district’s African-American eighth graders were proficient in math; in 2015 the percentage is up to 13%. There has been progress, but there is still much work to be done to get students where they need to be.

There is a clear mismatch between graduation rates and rates of college readiness for African-American students in many states.

Graduation rates for African-American students range from 84% (in Texas) to 57% (in both Nevada and Oregon). But, according to the ACT, the percentage of African-American students who are college-ready in all four tested subjects (English, math, reading, and science) ranges from 17% (in Massachusetts) to only 3% (in Mississippi).[1] The ACT is not a perfect barometer, and there should be some discrepancy between these numbers, as not all high school graduates are planning on attending college. But college preparedness rates that equal only one-tenth of the graduation rate seem extreme.

Many African-American students are gaining access to rigorous classes—but not to the degree they should be. And, unfortunately, it is not clear that those who enroll in higher-level courses are experiencing success.

In three states, more than 40% of African-American students graduated having taken at least one Advanced Placement (AP) exam—the District of Columbia at 47.5%, Hawaii at 43.7%, and Florida at 43.6%. However, Hawaii was the only state to see more than 15% of African-American students actually pass (score a 3, 4, or 5 on a 1–5 scale) at least one of those exams during their high school years. Expanding access is clearly important, but there is the additional task of supporting students so they can meet that higher bar.

Far too few African-American students are excelling in STEM subjects.

Only three states saw more than 5% of the African-American students in their graduating class pass at least one AP STEM exam during high school—Colorado at 5.9%, Massachusetts at 5.4%, and Hawaii at exactly 5%. At the other end of the spectrum, four states saw less than 1% of African-American students graduate having passed an AP STEM exam—West Virginia at 0.7%, Missouri at 0.7%, Louisiana at 0.5%, and Mississippi at 0.4%. As Leaders & Laggards 2014 demonstrated, states across the country are struggling mightily to drive success on AP STEM exams for all students, not only African-Americans. Several of the fastest-growing (and highest-paying) jobs in America are in STEM fields, and today many of those are sitting unfilled. Better K12 preparation in STEM fields could go a long way to help fill these jobs.

Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between access and success—states that see more students take AP tests see more students pass AP tests.

If one runs a simple correlation calculation between the percentage of African-American students in a given state taking at least one AP exam and the percentage of African-American students who graduate having passed at least one AP exam, the result is a robust 0.72—a strong relationship by almost any definition.

[1] If we exclude New Hampshire, which had only a small number of African-American students take the ACT.