New Statistical Indicators Reveal College-Going Patterns for School Districts

April 18, 2012

Race gaps in college enrollment found to be misunderstood

Cambridge, MA. (April 18, 2012) – According to findings released today by researchers at the Strategic Data Project (SDP), the gap in college enrollment rates between black students and white students in four large, urban districts disappears or even reverses direction once prior achievement and socioeconomic background is accounted for. The SDP team also found that the same measure considerably reduces the gap between white and Latino students, although the gap still remains in most districts.  These data highlight the importance of ensuring equal access to high quality instruction regardless of economic background and can help districts understand where they ought to target their efforts to increase college enrollment.

Based at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, SDP is releasing a set of three Strategic Performance Indicators (SPIs) today that challenge common assumptions about college‐going patterns in US school districts and provide deeper insight into the health and performance of school districts. SDP developed these indicators through a series of studies conducted in partnership with five school systems across the United States.

“SDP’s analysis shows something really important: if we are sure to look at kids who are academically performing at roughly the same levels and come from similar economic backgrounds, we see essentially no gaps in college enrollment between black students and white students, and we see the gaps for Latino students decline significantly.  This suggests that if we can start to close the existing achievement gap, we can also make great progress on closing the college enrollment gap,” said SDP Executive Director Sarah Glover. “Perhaps more importantly, we hope this information – in the hands of superintendents, principals, guidance counselors, parents, and students in our partner districts – will allow all of those people to make decisions that can significantly improve outcomes.” 

SDP’s unique analyses link the large datasets of student records from the K‐12 district to college enrollment records maintained by the National Student Clearinghouse, enabling student trajectories to be examined in detail from grade school and high school all the way into college. These indicators allow K‐12 leaders to have a finer‐grained understanding of college enrollment and college persistence patterns of their high school students, and to uncover variability that may have never been detected using usual methods of data reporting.

“School districts have gotten good at using information to show which students or schools performed well or poorly, but they haven’t always taken the leap to use data proactively,” said Vicki Phillips, Director of Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This project encourages the education sector to use data strategically, so they can get a better understanding of how progress is being made and what can be done systematically to shape better outcomes for students.” The Gates Foundation has supported this project with a multi‐year grant.

The three SPIs being released today are: 1) Demographic Factors and College‐Going Rates, 2) The High School Effect and 3) The College Match.

In Demographic Factors and College‐Going Rates, SDP analysts compared the college‐going rates of students from different racial/ethnic groups, but conducted the analysis to ensure the comparisons were among students with similar prior academic achievement and similar socioeconomic status.  When compared in this way, the college enrollment gaps between black and white students disappear.  In some districts, the college‐going rates of black students surpassed those of similar white students.  This meaningful information is hidden when one examines overall average college enrollment rates by race for students who have widely varying prior achievement and socioeconomic backgrounds.

This analysis also confirmed that the gaps decline significantly between white and Latino students; though remain substantial in three of four districts studied.  This suggests that districts will need to develop differentiated strategies for increasing the number of students continuing on to college.

The High School Effect highlights the wide variation in college‐going rates for students with similar levels of eighth grade academic achievement who attend different high schools within a district. This indicator suggests the importance of individual schools in meaningfully influencing their students’ likelihood of enrolling in and succeeding at college.

The College Match uncovers a larger‐than‐expected group of highly successful students in each district who either do not attend college at all or opt to attend less selective postsecondary institutions. Other analyses, conducted by SDP and others, confirm that students are more likely to drop out from colleges that are not sufficiently academically challenging to them.  As a result, they are less likely to attain a postsecondary degree.

“Successful communities measure what matters and use what they discover to inform strategic action.  So, documenting what students do after high school to prepare for life as economically successful citizens is critically important,” said Ron Ferguson, faculty director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard.  “These reports show that group‐level differences in college going and success are due in a major way to how well students are prepared by their K‐12 school systems.   Not only that, the reports also show that even among students with apparently equal preparation, some schools are more effective at sending their students to college.  They highlight an urgent need to improve both academic preparation and high school counseling services. ”

The Strategic Data Project developed the SPIs with the goal of establishing common indicators – not unlike a financial ratio that can illuminate the financial health of a firm or the on‐base percentage of a hitter in baseball – that can be measured in a standard way and analyzed repeatedly over time and in many places.  Education systems can use these indicators to benchmark their progress – both against themselves over time, and in relation to other districts with similar populations.

In the last 50 years, sectors such as business, health care, public safety and even professional sports have been transformed through increasingly sophisticated analyses of the vast amount of information being collected. Currently, a vast amount of educational data is left untapped for policy development and strategic planning.  For example, few school districts track where they find or place their most effective teachers or what their students go on to after high school. SDP’s goal is to work with its partners – school districts, state education agencies, and charter school networks – to build a growing network of leaders who use rigorous and thoughtful analysis to transform K‐12 education in America.

Several pioneering districts across the US partnered with SDP to make this possible.  They shared up to 10 years of historical data, allowing the research team to pull together enormous data sets and assemble and link data across organizational silos.  SDP staff and district staff worked side‐by‐ side to analyze these data for a deep understanding of current performance and opportunities to improve. The partners highlighted in these initial reports – Boston Public Schools, Charlotte‐ Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools, Fort Worth (Texas) Independent School District, Fulton County (Ga.) Schools, and Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools – collectively serve over 500,000 students, 56 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 72 percent of whom are ethnic minorities.

SDP will be developing and releasing sets of SPIs at regular intervals throughout the year. A second group of SPIs will look at where districts place novice teachers and how well districts retain their most effective teachers. Two additional analyses are in production and scheduled for release in early fall.


The Strategic Data Project was founded in 2008 on the belief that analyzing and using data in new ways can dramatically improve student outcomes. Better access to appropriately analyzed data will allow system leaders to better diagnose issues, develop potential solutions, and monitor the results of implementing these solutions. Our theory of action is that if we bring together the right people, assemble the right data, and perform the right analysis, collectively, we can improve decisions such that student achievement increases significantly.

The Center for Education Policy Research
The rapid accumulation of student achievement data represents an untapped national resource, one that holds the promise of breaking longstanding stalemates in the education policy debate. The Center for Education Policy Research works with University‐based researchers and policymakers to bring these new data to bear in evaluating policies and drawing implications for reform. As a national convener with alumni in leadership positions in districts around the country, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard University are uniquely placed to play this national leadership role.

Center for Education Policy Research
50 Church St, 4th Floor Cambridge Ma
For more information visit [WWW.GSE.HARVARD.EDU/SDP]