Race/ethnicity in the U.S.

The New York Times recently commented that America's racial divide—measured in terms of income, wealth, employment, homeownership, occupation, and pay—comprise "a central fault line that has shaped the nation's history."55 International assessment data, for all it offers, can often mask the crucial social and economic inequities that are vital to a deeper understanding of the skill level of U.S. adults. In what ways is that fault line visible in the skills data for our millennial population? Moreover, what role do educational attainment, quality of both K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions, and nativity play in helping us understand these data?

As noted previously, the demographic makeup of the U.S. is rapidly shifting. According to 2012 U.S. Census data, Whites represent 77.7 percent, African-Americans 13.2 percent, and Asians 5.3 percent of the population. Hispanics of any race comprise 17.1 percent of the total U.S. population.56 Over the course of a decade, public school enrollment from pre-K through 12th grade for Whites fell from 60 to 52 percent, while Hispanic enrollment increased from 17 to 24 percent.57 Enrollment for Asian/Pacific Islander58 students has remained stable over this period. Projections of school enrollment by racial/ethnic group predict a continuation in these trends for the upcoming decade.

Against this backdrop are the stark economic racial/ethnic inequalities that remain entrenched in the American society. As reported by Pew Research, the median wealth (assets-debts) of White households is 20 times that of Black and 18 times that of Hispanic households.59 This disparity in wealth is also reflected in data regarding income distribution, unemployment rates, and mortality rates.60

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provide evidence of longstanding racial/ethnic gaps in achievement that broadly mirror these inequalities.61

NAEP long-term trend data62 show that since the 1970s, racial/ethnic gaps have been relatively stable—despite the modest narrowing of the White-Black and White-Hispanic gaps at almost all three age categories assessed (ages 9, 13, and 17).63 In core subjects such as reading and mathematics, "main" NAEP data reveal that White-Hispanic and White-Black gaps have existed since main NAEP was administered in the 1990s for reading and mathematics at grades 4 and 8, and in 2005 in mathematics for grade 12.64 Gaps in the performance of Asian/Pacific Islander compared to White students emerged, most notably in main NAEP mathematics, at grades 4, 8, and 12. That is, Asian/Pacific Islander students in these grades outperformed White grade-level peers in mathematics.65

The status dropout rate (the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds not enrolled in school and not having a high school credential) also reveals significant variations by racial/ethnic groups. For each year that data have been collected between 1990 and 2012, the status dropout rate was lower for White than for Black and Hispanic young adults.66 Over this same period, however, there were declines in the status dropout rate across all racial/ethnic groups, resulting in a narrowing of the gap in the White-Hispanic dropout rate; the White-Black gap in the dropout status rate in 2012 was not, however, statistically different from 1990.67

For the most part, the racial/ethnic gaps identified in educational achievement and attainments at the K-12 level are borne out in the PIAAC skills data on millennials. Gaps in average numeracy scores are evident (table 6). White and Asian millennials outperform their Black and Hispanic peers, though the scores for Asian and White millennials do not differ significantly from one another as they do in many of the K-12 national assessment results. The overall demographic trends evident in the K-12 population—with an increasingly more diverse school age population—are present when we look at age segments of the adult population, with millennials decidedly more diverse than older adults. While Whites comprise 70 percent of the population of adults over the age of 35, they are only 58 percent of millennials.

In what ways do race/ethnicity influence our understanding of the overall performance of U.S. millennials? As a means of comparison, 64 percent of millennials in the U.S. performed below the minimum standard (below level 3) in numeracy, compared to 47 percent of millennials in the OECD average. Fifty-four percent of White millennials and 52 percent of Asian millennials performed below this level, as compared to 83 percent of Hispanic and 88 percent of Black millennials.

The performance of White and Asian millennials, however, still does not reach the level of the top performers internationally and remains below the OECD average. In fact, average scores and percentages of U.S. White millennials that performed below level 3 are similar to those of millennials in France (average score of 267 and 54% scored below level 3), which ranks near the bottom internationally. While a greater percentage of White and Asian/Pacific Islander millennials (12%) performed at the highest proficiency level (level 4/5) compared to Hispanic (3%) or Black (1%) millennials, these percentages are still lower than the OECD average (15%) and the percentages of millennials at this level in top-performing countries (Finland at 26% and the Netherlands at 21% ). The issues of race and ethnicity clearly impact our understanding of how skills are distributed among our young adult population and deserve further attention and research.

Race/ethnicity and educational attainment. As with adults overall, differences in the performance within racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. are associated with different levels of educational attainment. (Note: Due to sample sizes in the PIAAC data for race/ethnicity in the U.S., performance for racial/ethnic groups by levels of educational attainment could not be estimated for millennials and is reported here for adults 25–65). Across all racial/ethnic groups, those with greater levels of educational attainment scored higher than adults with less education (table 7).

However, the distribution of the population among levels of educational attainment differed by race/ethnicity. For example, 57 percent of the Hispanic adult population reported having an upper secondary education or less, compared to 38 percent of White adults, 46 percent of Black adults, and 23 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander adults. In terms of post-secondary education, a greater percentage of White (34%) and Asian/Pacific Islander (34%) adults age 25–65 reported that their highest level of educational attainment was either a post-secondary non-bachelor's degree or a four year bachelor's degree as compared to Black (27%) or Hispanic (16%) adults in this age group. Given the previously noted association between educational attainment and skill level, it is therefore not surprising that Hispanic and Black adults age 25–65 (as well as millennials) performed worse than their White and Asian peers.

Variation in performance among racial/ethnic groups persists, however, even for those with similar levels of education. For example, 95 percent of Black adults age 25–65 reporting their highest level of education as upper secondary and 86 percent of Hispanic adults at this educational level performed below the minimum standard (below level 3) in numeracy compared to 71 percent of White adults. This differential in performance, particularly the gap in percentages of White and Black adults that scored below level 3, was noted at each level of educational attainment (with reportable results). In fact, Black adults age 25–65 consistently scored about 50 points lower than their White peers across most educational attainment categories, where sample sizes were adequate to allow for a reliable estimate. Equally alarming, there is no difference between the percentages below level 3 for Black adults that report having only a high school credential (95%) and those that report having some post-secondary (nonbaccalaureate) education (91%). Our educational institutions—especially those serving more disadvantaged segments of the population—need to do a better job imparting skills. Moreover, if there is inequality in the investment and quality of educational resources for different racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups within the U.S., then inequalities in skills, economic opportunity, income, and wealth will continue to grow over time.

These data point to a distinct pattern of inequity in the quality and type of opportunities that different racial/ethnic groups receive in the U.S. The data also suggest that while millennials overall, and even those within specific racial and ethnic groups, may be attaining higher levels of education than older peers, the skills associated with these attainment levels are below average in absolute and relative terms. In regard to post-secondary education, where skills acquired at the K-12 level are expected to be honed, a larger portion of White young adults are enrolled in elite colleges and universities, while a greater percentage of Black and Hispanic young adults generally attend community colleges.68 In addition, researchers have found that many for-profit two- and four-year colleges do not yield impressive returns to investments in education.69 While millennials overall are acquiring greater debt to pay for their post-secondary education, Blacks and Hispanics may be accumulating this debt with less payoff in terms of skills acquisition. The stratification of types of post-secondary education by race/ethnicity contributes to skills inequality among the American adult population which in turn exacerbates income inequality.70

Although sample sizes prohibit comparisons of scores among all of the racial/ethnic groups with a baccalaureate and a post-graduate degree (master's or research degree), some relevant results about skills and race/ethnicity can be noted.71 For those in each of the racial/ethnic categories who reported attaining a baccalaureate degree, White adults scored higher than their racial/ethnic peers with similar levels of educational attainment. At the highest level of educational attainment—a post-secondary master's/research degree—scores could only be computed for White and Asian/Pacific Islander adults, and these scores were not statistically different. Notable, however, is the gap in performance between White and Black adults with a four-year college degree. White adults scored 44 points higher than their similarly educated Black peers. Moreover, 71 percent of Black adults with this level of educational attainment scored below the minimum standard in numeracy, compared to 29 percent of White adults.

Left unacknowledged and unmitigated, the trends in racial/ethnic differences in adult skill levels in the U.S. will result in an ever-growing population of U.S. adults without the human capital required to compete flexibly and effectively in the economy and participate fully in our democracy. Across all racial/ethnic groups, the PIAAC results expose skills deficits that we ignore at our own risk. As Ronald Ferguson has warned, "If we fail to raise the achievement levels across the entire population—particularly among Latinos and African Americans—we will continue sliding backwards in the community of nations in regards to academic skill levels and perhaps also in our capacity to compete."72

55 Neil Irwin, Claire Cain Miller, and Margot Sanger-Katz, "America's Racial Divide, Charted," The New York Times, August 19, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/upshot/americas-racial-divide-charted.html.

56 U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, "Annual Estimates of the Resident Population by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for the United States, States, and Counties: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2012," Population Estimates Table PEPSR6H, http://factfinder2.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/PEP/2012/PEPSR6H.

57 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, "Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools," in The Condition of Education, last modified April 2014, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cge.asp.

58 The racial breakdown is denoted differently in the Census and NAEP. Asians are a unique group in the Census; Asians and Pacific Islanders are grouped together in NAEP.

59 Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor, "Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics," Pew Research Center, 2014, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/07/26/wealth-gaps-rise-to-record-highs-between-whites-blacks-hispanics.

60 Annie E. Casey Foundation, Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children (Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014); T. J. Mathews and M. F. MacDorman, "Infant Mortality Statistics from the 2010 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Data Set" National Vital Statistics Report 62, No. 8, http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6301a9.htm.

61 Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, The Black-White Test Score Gap (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998); G. Kao, J. S. Thompson, "Racial and Ethnic Stratification in Educational Achievement and Attainment," Annual Review of Sociology 29 (2003): 417-42; Arthur Sakamoto, Kimberly A. Goyette, and Kim Chang Hwan, "Socioeconomic Attainments of Asian Americans," Annual Review of Sociology 35 (August, 2009): 255-76.

62 NAEP Long-Term Trend is a study based on older frameworks than Main NAEP. Long-term trend frameworks for reading and mathematics were developed in the 1960s.

63 The Nation's Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012, prepared by U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (Washington, DC, June 2013), http://nationsreportcard.gov/ltt_2012/summary.aspx.

64 The current NAEP reading assessment framework governs reading assessments from 1992 to the present at grades 4, 8, and 12. The current NAEP mathematics assessment framework governs mathematics assessments from 1990 to the present at grades 4 and 8. The grade 12 NAEP mathematics assessment framework was redesigned in 2005, which began a new trend line for this subject.

65 2013 Grade 12 Reading and Mathematics Results, prepared by U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (Washington, DC, 2014), http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/achievement-gaps/. Asian-White gaps emerged in 2003 at grades 4 and 8, and 2005 at grade 12.

66 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, "Status Dropout Rates," in The Condition of Education, last modified January 2014, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_coj.asp.

67 Data are based on sample surveys of the civilian noninstitutionalized population, which excludes persons in prisons, in the military, and others not living in households.

68 Mettler, Degrees of Inequality.

69 U.S. Department of Education, "Obama Administration Takes Action to Protect Americans from Predatory, Poor-Performing Career Colleges," [press release], http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/obama-administration-takes-action-protect-americans-predatory-poor-performing-ca; Henry Farrell, "Five Questions on Regulating For-Profit Colleges," Washington Post, May 29, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/05/29/five-questions-on-regulating-for-profit-colleges/.

70 Greenstone et al., "Thirteen Economic Facts"; Mettler, Degrees of Inequality.

71 Sample size for Hispanics in this category was insufficient to provide a reliable estimate.

72 Ferguson, 2014, 7