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Chapter 1: Demographic Context

Many studies have documented the associations between student background and educational outcomes (e.g., high school graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and attainment rates). Demographic factors known to be linked to these outcomes include socioeconomic status indicators (e.g., poverty, family income, and parents' education), parental involvement, student disabilities, and native language. Chapter 1 examines some of these indicators and analyzes group differences by sex and race/ethnicity.

As a case in point, poverty poses a serious challenge to a child's ability to succeed in school and its prevalence is markedly higher among certain racial/ethnic groups than in others. Research has suggested that living in poverty in early childhood is associated with lower than average academic performance that extends through elementary and high school and can lead to lower than average rates of school completion (Black, Hess, and Berenson-Howard 2000; Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997; Campbell et al. 2001; Entwisle, Alexander, and Olson 2005; Lee and Burkman 2002). Further, growing up in poverty is negatively correlated with children's physical health, as well as their working memory, possibly due to the chronic psychological stress of living in poverty (Evans and Schamberg 2009).

Other factors—such as parental education levels—have also been linked to child outcomes such as educational experience, attainment, and academic achievement. For example, positive associations have been found between children with highly educated mothers and their rates of participation in early childhood education programs and home literacy activities (Planty et al. 2009). In an earlier report that examined the postsecondary experiences of first- generation college students (college students whose parents had never enrolled in postsecondary education), Nunez and Cuccaro-Alamin (1998) found that among beginning postsecondary students in 198990, first-generation college students persisted in postsecondary education and attained credentials at lower rates than their non-first-generation counterparts. This finding held for students at 4-year institutions as well as public 2-year institutions. Even when controlling for many of the characteristics that distinguish first-generation college students from their peers, such as socioeconomic status, institution type, and attendance status, first-generation student status still had a negative effect on persistence and attainment.

Extensive research exists on the importance of parental involvement in children's education (e.g., Jordan, Snow, and Porche 2000; Starkey and Klein 2000; Gutman and Midgley 2000; Shumow and Miller 2001). Children whose parents are involved in their schools by doing such things as attending school events and back-to-school nights or volunteering are more likely to do well in school, to remain in school, and to exhibit fewer behavioral problems than children whose parents are not involved.

Limited English proficiency continues to be associated with educational outcomes for nonnative speakers of English in the United States. Studies have demonstrated that even with additional educational support, students who have difficulty speaking English often have persistently lower academic achievement (e.g., on achievement tests in reading and mathematics) and educational attainment than native English speakers (Brady, Owings, and Quinn 1992; Klein et al. 2004). In addition, language difficulties may contribute to the significantly higher dropout rates observed among foreign-born students in general and Hispanic students in particular than observed among native English speakers. For example, compared with their counterparts who spoke only English at home, a lower percentage of non-native English speakers 18 to 24 years old completed high school (10 percent vs. 31 percent; Klein et al. 2004).

Other students who face educational challenges are those with specific learning or other disabilities. At the elementary and secondary levels, students with disabilities may struggle more to meet academic standards, have lower performance on standardized tests, and graduate high school with a regular diploma at lower rates than their counterparts without disabilities. Further, obstacles for these students may continue into adulthood. For example, a survey of beginning postsecondary students in 198990 indicated that students who reported any disabilities had lower rates of persistence and degree attainment than those without disabilities (Horn and Berktold 1999). In the study, a higher percentage of students with disabilities than without disabilities delayed their postsecondary enrollment a year or more after finishing high school (43 vs. 32 percent) or completed high school through earning a GED (i.e., passing the General Educational Development exam) or other alternative high school credential (12 vs. 6 percent). Those with disabilities stayed enrolled or earned a postsecondary degree or credential within 5 years at lower rates than their counterparts without disabilities.

The first two chapters in this report present demographic information on students, their families, and the schools they attend by sex and race/ethnicity that provides context for the education indicators presented in later chapters. In order to describe the status of males and females and racial/ethnic groups in this country's education system, it is important to provide contextual information on the relative size of each group, where the members of each group come from, and where and how they live. On some indicators, males and females are similar, while races/ethnicities are different. On other indicators—such as the percentage of students with specific learning disabilities—differences are found between males and females overall, as well as within racial/ethnic groups.