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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 11/26/2010

Report on college attendance crisis for black males exaggerated

By Valerie Strauss

The following was written by Caroline Grannan, a San Francisco public-school parent, volunteer and advocate. Grannan is a retired daily-newspaper copy editor, who like all former newsroom journalists, compulsively Monday-morning-quarterbacks her ex-colleagues' work.

By Caroline Grannan
There's no doubt that the education crisis for African-American males is a serious and valid concern. A recent report by the Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) provided a new slew of data highlighting the problem.

But we don't need to make the crisis sound even worse than it actually is. One piece of data was widely misunderstood – starting with The New York Times' Nov. 9 article on the CGCS report – and cited to exaggerate the emergency. The Times ran a correction once the “d'oh!” kicked in -- which, needless to say, should have happened during the original reporting and editing process.

The misinterpretation also appeared on The Answer Sheet, in the Nov. 22 post “How to help African-American males in school: Treat them like gifted students.”

The misunderstood factoid is this one, quoted here from The New York Times article:

“In college, black men represented just 5 percent of students in 2008.”

But actually, that particular statistic doesn't demonstrate a crisis. That's because black men make up just 6.5 percent of the U.S. population.

Here's The Times' correction:

"Correction: November 12, 2010
An article on Tuesday about a report on the achievement gap in schools between black male students and white male students in reading and math referred incorrectly in some editions to data from Baltimore’s urban school district. The information for the district’s progress in dropout rates and graduation rates for African-American boys in the last academic year was compared with data from three years ago, not four years ago. The article also referred imprecisely to the significance of the number of black men in college. While black men made up “just 5 percent” of college students in 2008, that figure did not represent one of the areas in which blacks showed a lack of achievement, given that black men make up only about 6.5 percent of the general population."

Unfortunately, a quick check of Google and Google News shows this statistic flying around far and wide to demonstrate a supposed crisis. As usual, the original misinterpretation was widely disseminated, while the correction remains tiny, invisible and unnoticed.

I looked to see if the original CGCS report also misunderstood that statistic. But no, it was used to make a particular – and appalling – point. The Times reporter and apparently most everyone else misunderstood the reason that 5 percent figure was used. The CGCS report compared the percentage of college students who are black males (5 percent, as noted) to the percentage of prison inmates who are black males (36 percent).

It might be interesting to do some further research on another day: How does the percentage of college students who are white males compare to the percentage of the overall population who are white males – and check into that for other demographic subgroups, for that matter.

Here's another little piece of logic with bearing on that factoid: Given that it costs an enormous amount to attend college in the United States (in actual costs as well as lost income) – a situation that does not exist in other developed nations, by the way! – it's far more difficult for low-income people to attend college than for high-income people.

Black males are statistically more likely to be low-income than some other demographics, and so they face an extra challenge in the ability to attend college. Considering that, it could be a bright spot that black males are so well-represented among college students.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 26, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Achievement gap, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  achievement gap, african-american males, attendance crisis, black males, college attendance and african american males  
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Just to fill this out a bit. I am also a bit of a nerd who scours papers looking for education stories. I petitioned TNYT for about two weeks to get the second correction to the Nov. 9 story published. (From Nov.21).
"An article on Nov. 9 about a report on the achievement gap in schools between black male students and white male students in reading and math referred incorrectly to the gap in SAT scores. African-American boys scored, on average, 104 points lower in critical reasoning, not overall on all three components of the test. The gap is 120 points in mathematics and 99 points in writing."
So while this part of that TNYT story isn't really referring to attendance rates at colleges, it highlights that the achievement gap (at least with respect to the SAT) is over 3 times as high as TNYT first reported.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 26, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Curious as to how many of that 5% never completed school. Who should be faulted on that tidbit?

Posted by: jbeeler | November 27, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Was the TNYT an education reporter? It seems non-education reporters make a lot of mistakes.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 27, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

jbeeler, no one was faulting any one on anything. You are the type of person who makes reading the comments sections of the online papers distateful. You are a loser who purveys hate and discord through anonymous posts.

Our country would be so much better off if it encouraged suicide for haters.

Posted by: topryder1 | November 28, 2010 6:04 AM | Report abuse

One more instance of Post reporters' and editors' innumeracy.

The relevant datapoint for comparison in determining black male under-representation in college is not the proportion of the general population that is black male. The black male 5% of college students should be compared to the ratio of college age black males to all college age persons.

As we all know, black fertility rate has long been higher than that of the general population. Thus the proportion of young black males to all young is higher than the ratio of all black males to the total population.

Posted by: ronStrong | November 28, 2010 6:12 AM | Report abuse

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