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Education Statistics Quarterly
Vol 3, Issue 3, Topic: Crosscutting Statistics
Educational Achievement and Black-White Inequality
By: Jonathan Jacobson, Cara Olsen, Jennifer King Rice, Stephen Sweetland, and John Ralph
 
This article was originally published as the Executive Summary of the Statistical Analysis Report of the same name. The sample survey data are from several NCES, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Department of Education surveys, which are listed at the end of this article.
 
 

The study reported here explored the relationship between Black-White differences in educational achievement and Black-White differences in a variety of educational and economic outcomes. Comparisons were made first between overall average outcomes for Blacks and Whites and then between average outcomes for Blacks and Whites with similar levels of prior educational achievement.1 The major findings of the study reveal that

  • For women with similar levels of prior educational achievement, Blacks earned as much, or more, per year as Whites. For men with similar levels of prior educational achievement, Black-White gaps in annual earnings were at least two-fifths smaller than Black-White gaps for men as a whole. Black-White disparities in employment were, for young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement, at least one-half smaller than Black-White employment disparities for young adults as a whole.
  • For young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement, Blacks were more likely to attend college than Whites. Among college attendees with similar levels of prior educational achievement, Blacks' college completion rates were as high as, or higher than, the college completion rates of Whites.
  • Throughout elementary and secondary school, Blacks scored lower, overall, on mathematics and reading tests than Whites. Even for children with similar test scores one or two grades earlier, Blacks generally scored lower in mathematics and reading than Whites. The Black-White mathematics gap differed in size across grades, in a manner consistent with, but not necessarily demonstrating, a narrowing of the gap during elementary school, followed by a widening of the gap during junior high school and little change during senior high school. The Black-White reading gap also differed in size across grades, but not in an entirely consistent manner; it grew wider between grades within two elementary school cohorts, but was narrower for cohorts observed in grades 9and 12 than for a cohort observed in grade 2.

In general, the findings show that, for children and young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement, the educational and economic performance of Blacks relative to Whites was substantially greater than the performance of Blacks relative to Whites as a whole. While Blacks have lower levels of educational achievement, educational attainment, and earnings than Whites, these disparities are frequently smaller, and are sometimes entirely absent, for individuals with similar levels of prior educational achievement. Factors other than differences in prior educational achievement may contribute to Black-White gaps in achievement, employment, and earnings; nonetheless, Blacks' relative educational achievement during elementary and secondary school appeared to be highly correlated with their relative success in the academy and the economy.

Note: This study does not attempt to isolate the causal relationship between educational achievement and subsequent educational and economic outcomes. Rather, using educational achievement as an indicator for the cognitive backgrounds of children and young adults, it investigates the extent to which Black-White disparities are present for individuals with similar levels of prior educational achievement. The comparison of outcomes for Blacks and Whites with similar levels of educational achievement does not indicate what outcomes for all Blacks would be if their average achievement were raised to the level for Whites. Educational achievement differences are correlated with many other possible sources of Black-White disparities, some measured in survey data, others unmeasured.

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Over the past quarter-century, Black Americans have made important gains in narrowing the gaps in educational and economic performance between themselves and Whites. Between 1973 and 1996, for example, average scores of Black 17-year-olds on the mathematics portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grew by 6 percent, while average scores of White 17-year-olds remained about the same (Snyder, Hoffman, and Geddes 1997). Black-White gaps in NAEP reading scores also narrowed over this period. Further, in 1974, the high school dropout rate for 15- through 24-year-old Blacks was twice the corresponding rate for Whites; but by 1997, Blacks and Whites in this age bracket remained in high school at similar rates (National Center for Education Statistics 1999).

Despite progress in reducing Black-White gaps in mathematics and reading achievement, Blacks have continued to score lower on NAEP than Whites (Snyder, Hoffman, and Geddes 1997). And, despite the convergence in high school completion rates of Blacks and Whites, the Black-White gap in 4-year college completion rates of high school graduates 2529 years old has increased slightly over the past quarter-century. Between 1975 and 1998, this gap increased from 13 to 17 percentage points (National Center for Education Statistics 1999).

In recent years, Black-White disparities have also persisted—and have sometimes grown larger—for labor market outcomes such as labor force participation,2  unemployment,3 and hourly wages. Between 1973 and 1993, Black-White differences in the labor force participation rates of 25- through 34-year-olds widened by 3.4 percentage points for men and 19 percentage points for women, and the corresponding Black-White gaps in unemployment rates widened by about 2.4 percentage points for both men and women. Over the same time period, the Black-White gap in hourly wages narrowed by one-third for 25- through 34-year-old men, but more than doubled for 25- through 34-year-old women (Bernstein 1995).

Recent studies have revealed a strong relationship between differences in prior educational achievement and Black-White disparities in college attendance and earnings. With Black-White disparities remaining in both educational and economic outcomes, it is important to understand the relationship between educational achievement during elementary and secondary school and subsequent academic and labor market performance.

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The study documented in this report used multiple datasets to confirm and extend earlier findings. Specifically, this study included three sets of analyses designed to investigate the relationship between Black-White differences in prior educational achievement and a variety of subsequent outcomes:4

  • The first set of analyses considered the extent to which Black-White differences in labor market outcomes were present for young adults as a whole and for young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement.
  • The second set of analyses considered the extent to which Black-White differences in educational attainment were present for young adults as a whole and for young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement.
  • The final set of analyses considered the extent to which Black-White differences in mathematics and reading achievement were present for children as a whole and for children with similar levels of prior educational achievement. These analyses also considered the extent to which Black-White achievement gaps varied in size during elementary and secondary school.
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Main findings

Analyses of labor market outcomes between 1979 and 19925 indicate that, for young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement, the economic performance of Blacks relative to Whites was substantially greater than for young adults as a whole. For young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement, Black-White gaps in unemployment rates were generally at least one-half smaller than for young adults as a whole. Among men with similar levels of prior educational achievement, Black-White gaps in annual earnings were at least two-fifths smaller than for men as a whole. Black women with levels of prior educational achievement similar to White women earned as much as, or more than, their White counterparts.

Unemployment rates

For the samples of young adults studied, there were no consistent differences between Blacks and Whites in terms of labor force participation, but Black labor force participants were more likely to be unemployed than White labor force participants (figure 1). The absolute Black-White gaps in unemployment rates ranged between 4 and 10 percentage points, and were similar in size for men and women. These gaps were generally at least one-half smaller for young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement than for young adults as a whole.

Figure 1.-Unemployment rates for Black and White young adults: 1979-92
Figure 1.- Unemployment rates for Black and White young adults: 1979-92

NOTE: Samples restricted to civilian labor force participants; higher end of gray range is for Blacks.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics: National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, "Fourth Follow-up" (NLS:72/79) (1979 sample, 7 years after grade 12), High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores (HS&B-So:80/92) (1992 sample, 12 years after grade 10); and U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1983-89 sample, 7 years after grade 12, and 1986-92 sample, 12 years after grade 10).

Figure 2.-Average annual earnings for Black and White young men and women: 1979-92
Figure 2.- Average annual earnings for Black and White young men and women: 1979-92

NOTE: Samples restricted to civilians reporting some earnings; higher end of gray range is for Whites, except in the case of women in 1992.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics: National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, "Fourth Follow-up" (NLS:72/79) (1979 sample, 7 years after grade 12), High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores (HS&B-So:80/92) (1992 sample, 12 years after grade 10); and U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1983-89 sample, 7 years after grade 12, and 1986-92 sample, 12 years after grade 10).

Annual earnings

For the samples of young adults studied, Blacks generally earned less per year than Whites.6  Black-White gaps in annual earnings for men ranged from 16 percent in the 1979 sample to about 32 percent in the 1983–89 and 1986–92 samples (figure 2). In the 1979 and 1992 samples, Black women and White women had similar earnings. In the 1986–92 sample, the Black-White earnings gap for women was about two-thirds smaller than the corresponding gap for men.

For men with similar levels of prior educational achievement, the Black-White gap in annual earnings was measured imprecisely in the 1979 sample, such that it was distinguishable neither from zero, nor from the gap for men as a whole. In the 1983–89, 1986–92, and 1992 samples, the Black-White earnings gap for men with similar educational achievement was over two-fifths smaller than for men as a whole.

For women with similar levels of prior educational achieve-ment, Blacks earned 12 percent more per year than Whites in the 1979 sample, 22 percent more per year than Whites in the 1992 sample, and about the same as Whites in the 1983–89 and 1986–92 samples.

Additional sources of disparities in labor market outcomes

Since differences in educational achievement can predict only a portion of Black-White differences in employment and men's earnings, other factors must contribute to racial disparities in these outcomes. Possible reasons for the remainder of these gaps include a relative shortage of jobs in areas where Blacks live, fewer job networks for Blacks, and the existence of labor market discrimination against Blacks. Unmeasured skill differences between labor force participants of different racial backgrounds may also contribute to the remaining Black-White disparities in employment and men's earnings.

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Main findings

Blacks having similar levels of prior educational achievement as Whites had received a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate at an equal or higher rate than Whites. For young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement in the same four samples observed between 1979 and 1992, the postsecondary educational attainment of Blacks was as high as, or higher than, that of Whites.7  For such young adults, the college attendance rate was higher for Blacks than for Whites. Further, Black college attendees with levels of prior educational achievement similar to those for Whites completed college at rates similar to, or higher than, the rates for White college attendees.

High school/GED completion rates

Black-White differences in high school/GED completion rates could be compared for every sample of young adults except the 1979 sample.8  A Black-White gap in high school/GED completion rates (in the range of 2 to 8 percentage points) was evident in the 1983–89, 1986–92, and 1992 samples. For young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement, Blacks received high school diplomas or GED certificates at a rate similar to or higher than Whites.

College attendance rates

Young adults observed between 1979 and 1992 generally showed a Black-White gap in college attendance rates (figure 3). Compared with Whites, Blacks had a 4- to 7-percentage-point lower rate of college attendance in the 1979 and 1983-89 samples, and a 10-percentage-point lower rate of college attendance in the 1992 sample.9 In contrast, for young adults with similar levels of prior educational achievement, Blacks had a 6- to 17-percentage-point higher rate of college attendance than Whites.

College completion rates

For young adults who had attended at least some college, college completion rates10 were consistently lower for Blacks than for Whites (figure 4). The Black-White gap in college completion ranged from about 13 percentage points in the 1979 sample to about 19 percentage points in the other three samples. Again, in contrast, among college attendees with similar levels of prior educational achievement, the college completion rate of Blacks equaled or exceeded that of Whites.

Figure 3.-College attendance rates for Black and White young adults: 1979-92
Figure 3.- College attendance rates for Black and White young adults: 1979-92

NOTE: Samples restricted to former 12th-graders or high school graduates (as indicated below); higher end of gray range is for Whites.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics: National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, "Fourth Follow-up" (NLS:72/79) (1979 sample, 7 years after grade 12), High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores (HS&B-So:80/92) (1992 sample, high school graduates 12 years after grade 10); and U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1983–89 sample, 7 years after grade 12, and 1986–92 sample, high school graduates 12 years after grade 10).

Figure 4.-College completion rates for Black and White young adults: 1979–92
Figure 4.- College completion rates for Black and White young adults: 1979-92

NOTE: College completion is defined as completion of 4 years of college or the equivalent. Samples restricted to persons who have attended at least some college; higher end of gray range is for Whites.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics: National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, "Fourth Follow-up" (NLS:72/79) (1979 sample, 7 years after grade 12), High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores (HS&B-So:80/92) (1992 sample, high school graduates 12 years after grade 10); and U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1983–89 sample, 7 years after grade 12, and 1986–92 sample, high school graduates 12 years after grade 10).

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Main findings

The analyses of educational achievement compared mathematics and reading levels of Black and White children at various points between grades 1 and 12.11 Black-White gaps in mathematics and reading achievement appeared at every grade studied. Even for children with similar levels of prior achievement one or two grades earlier,12 mathematics and reading scores of Blacks were generally lower than the corresponding scores of Whites.

Comparisons of the size of Black-White achievement gaps were possible between nearby grades within the same sample of children, as well as across different samples of children from grades 1 to 12. The Black-White mathematics gap differed in size across grades, in a manner consistent with a narrowing of the gap during elementary school, followed by a widening of the gap during junior high school and little change during senior high school. The Black-White reading gap also differed in size across grades, but not in an entirely consistent manner; it grew wider between grades within two elementary school cohorts, but was narrower in cohorts observed in grades 9 and 12 than in a cohort observed in grade 2.

Mathematics achievement

Compared with White children, Blacks scored lower on mathematics tests at every grade level studied between grades 1 and 12 (figure 5). Black-White mathematics gaps were usually similar in size for both boys and girls.

Within the same samples of children, the Black-White gap increased by two-fifths between grades 7 and 9, but changed little between grades 1 and 2, grades 3 and 5, and grades 10 and 12. Across different samples of children, the Black-White math gap was two-fifths smaller in grade 5 than in grade 2, but one-half larger in grade 9 than in grade 5, and about the same size in grade 12 as in grade 9. Between the grade 2 and grade 12 samples there was no difference in the size of the Black-White math gap, suggesting that any narrowing of the gap between grades 2 and 5 was largely negated by the widening of the gap between grades 5 and 9.13 

Figure 5.-Average mathematics achievement scores for Black and White children: 1990-93
Figure 5.- Average mathematics achievement scores for Black and White children: 1990-93

NOTE: Prior mathematics achievement refers to mathematics achievement one grade earlier for the grade 2 sample and two grades earlier for the grade 5, grade 9, and grade 12 samples. Mathematics scores are normalized so the grade 8 score for children of all races has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1 in the grade 9 and grade 12 samples. Higher end of gray range is for Whites.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education: Chapter 1 Prospects Study (1992–93 sample of 1st- through 2nd-graders, and 1991–93 samples of 3rd– through 5th-graders and 7th– through 9th-graders), and National Center for Education Statistics, National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 Eighth-Graders (NELS:88/92) (1990–92 sample of 10th- through 12th-graders).

Even for children who had similar math scores one or two grades earlier, a Black-White mathematics gap usually appeared. A Black-White mathematics gap was present in grade 2, even for children with similar math scores in grade 1; in grade 5, even for children with similar math scores in grade 3; and in grade 9, even for children with similar math scores in grade 7. These gaps were 59 to 70 percent smaller than the corresponding mathematics gaps for children as a whole. (Black and White children with similar math scores in grade 10 had similar math scores in grade 12.)

Reading achievement

Compared with Whites, Blacks also scored lower on reading tests at every grade level studied between grades 1 and 12 (figure 6). Black-White reading gaps did not differ consistently for boys and girls.

The Black-White reading gap grew wider between some grades, but was narrower in grades 9 and 12 than in grade 2.14 Within the same samples of children, the Black-White reading gap increased by one-third between grades 1 and 2 and by about one-fifth between grades 3 and 5,15 while remaining about the same between grades 7 and 9, and between grades 10 and 12. Across different samples of children, the Black-White reading gap was one-third smaller in grade 9 than in grade 2, and two-fifths smaller in grade 12 than in grade 2.

A Black-White reading gap was generally present, even for children with similar reading scores one or two grades earlier. For children with similar reading scores one or two grades earlier, the Black-White reading gap was 58 to 77 percent smaller than the corresponding Black-White reading gap for children as a whole.

While findings within the same samples of children would, by themselves, suggest a widening of the Black-White reading gap as children progressed through school, findings across different samples suggest an overall narrowing of the Black-White reading gap between grades 2 and 9, with this narrowing persisting through grade 12. This difference in findings may be consistent with the actual experiences of children as they progressed through school, or it may arise from the use of different cohorts of children in the comparisons. The collection and analysis of longitudinal data following the same sample of children all the way from grade 2 through grade 12 would help to further address the question of how the Black-White reading gap changes over the course of the school years.

Additional sources of disparities in educational achievement

On average, Blacks in grade 1 had lower mathematics and reading scores than Whites, and Blacks in grade 12 also had lower mathematics and reading scores than Whites. Among children with similar test scores one or two grades earlier, Blacks generally acquired fewer reading skills than Whites, and usually acquired fewer mathematics skills as well. These findings imply that Black-White disparities in educational achievement can widen as students progress through elementary or secondary school. Possible explanations for these differences in achievement growth include differences in the school or home environments of children of different racial backgrounds that make it more difficult for Blacks to acquire math or reading skills at the same pace as Whites.

Figure 6.-Average reading achievement scores for Black and White children: 1990-93
Figure 6.- Average reading achievement scores for Black and White children: 1990-93
NOTE: Prior reading achievement refers to reading achievement one grade earlier for the grade 2 sample and two grades earlier for the grade 5, grade 9, and grade 12 samples. Reading scores are normalized so the grade 8 score for children of all races has a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1 in the grade 9 and grade 12 samples. Higher end of gray range is for Whites.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education: Chapter 1 Prospects Study (1992-93 sample of 1st- through 2nd-graders, and 1991-93 samples of 3rd- through 5th-graders and 7th- through 9th-graders), and National Center for Education Statistics, National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 Eighth-Graders (NELS:88/92) (1990-92 sample of 10th- through 12th-graders).

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The findings of this study imply that, over the past 2 decades, Black-White differences in educational achievement have been strongly associated with Black-White disparities in a variety of educational and economic outcomes. Achievement differences do not necessarily cause gaps in educational attainment, employment, or earnings, but they reflect a set of circumstances responsible for Black-White disparities in both the academy and the economy. Addressing the contributing causes of Black-White achievement differences will be important in efforts to narrow Black-White gaps in educational performance, and perhaps also in subsequent labor market outcomes.

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Footnotes

1Comparisons between individuals with similar levels of prior educational achievement involved (1) Whites as a whole, and (2) Blacks with prior educational achievement similar to that for Whites.

2The labor force participation rate is defined as the percentage of noninstitutionalized civilians who are employed, otherwise with a job, or looking for a job.

3The unemployment rate is defined as the percentage of labor force participants who are without a job.

4Prior educational achievement is defined as prior mathematics and/or reading achievement. The accompanying figures indicate outcomes for all Whites, all Blacks, and Blacks at Whites' level of prior educational achievement.

5The analyses of labor market outcomes focused on four samples of young adults: (1) young adults who were high school seniors in 1972 and who were observed 7 years later through the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 ("the 1979 sample"); (2) young adults who were high school seniors between 1976 and 1982 and who were observed 7 years later through the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth ("the 1983-89 sample"); (3) young adults who were high school sophomores between 1974 and 1980 and who were observed 12 years later through the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth ("the 1986-92 sample"); and (4) young adults who were high school sophomores in 1980 and who were observed 12 years later through the High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study ("the 1992 sample"). High school sophomores and seniors were generally identified as of the spring of each year. Educational achievement was measured in 1972 for the 1979 sample and in 1980 for the other samples.

6The pattern of Black-White gaps in hourly wages-reported in every sample except the 1992 High School and Beyond sample-was generally similar to the pattern of gaps in annual earnings.

7The analyses of educational attainment outcomes focused on the same four samples of young adults studied for the analyses of labor market outcomes. Black-White differences in postsecondary educational attainment were generally similar for males and females.

8High school/GED completion status was ambiguous for individuals in the 1979 sample.

9In the 1986-92 sample, the Black-White difference in college attendance was significant for men (8 percent) but not for women or for young adults as a whole.

10College completion is defined here as completion of at least 4 years of college or an equivalent bachelor's degree.

11The analyses of educational achievement outcomes focused on four samples of children: (1) children between grades 1 and 2, observed from 1992 to 1993 in cohort 1 of the Chapter 1 Prospects Study; (2) children between grades 3 and 5, observed from 1991 to 1993 in cohort 3 of the Prospects Study; (3) children between grades 7 and 9, observed from 1991 to 1993 in cohort 7 of the Prospects Study; and (4) children between grades 10 and 12, observed from 1990 to 1992 in the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 Eighth-Graders. Black-White differences in educational achievement were usually similar for boys and girls.

12Prior educational achievement was defined as the corresponding mathematics or reading score for the earliest grade in which a sample of children was observed (grades 1, 3, 7, and 10, respectively).

13Note that comparisons of the grade 2, grade 5, grade 9, and grade 12 gaps involve four separate samples of children, which, while generally similar in observed family background characteristics, may differ in terms of unobserved family background and school characteristics. For the sample of children observed between grades 10 and 12, however, there is corroborating evidence of a widening of the Black-White mathe-matics gap by about one-fifth between grades 8 and 10.

14Note that the comparisons of the grade 9 and 12 gaps with the grade 2 gap involve separate samples of children, which may differ in terms of family background and school characteristics.

15For the sample of children observed between grades 10 and 12, there was corrob-orating evidence of a widening of the Black-White reading gap by about one-sixth between grades 8 and 10.

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Bernstein, J. (1995). Where's the Payoff? The Gap Between Black Academic Progress and Economic Gains. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). The Condition of Education: 1999 (NCES 1999–022). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Snyder, T.D., Hoffman, C.M., and Geddes, C.M. (1997). Digest of Education Statistics 1997 (NCES 98015). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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Data sources:

NCES: National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS:72/79), High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores (HS&B-So:80/92), National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 Eighth-Graders (NELS:88/92), and 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS).

Other: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), 1979–92; and U.S. Department of Education, Chapter 1 Prospects Study, 1991–93.

For technical information, see the complete report:

Jacobson, J., Olsen, C., Rice, J.K., Sweetland, S., and Ralph, J. (2001). Educational Achievement and Black-White Inequality (NCES 2001-061).

Author affiliations: J. Jacobson, C. Olsen, J.K. Rice, and S. Sweetland, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.; J. Ralph, NCES.

For questions about content, contact John Ralph (john.ralph@ed.gov).

To obtain the complete report (NCES 2001–061), call the toll-free ED Pubs number (877-433-7827), visit the NCES Web Site (http://nces.ed.gov), or contact GPO (202-512-1800).


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