White and Black Boys Fall Further Behind White Girls during the Transition to High School

April Sutton, Amy G. Langenkamp, Chandra Muller, and Kathryn S. Schiller

Introduction

The transition from middle school to high school is one of the most consequential and challenging educational transitions. Indeed, students often experience declines in their grade point averages (GPAs) between eighth and ninth grades. But several case studies suggest that boys—especially black and Latino boys—suffer the greatest academic declines during the high school transition. If equally talented boys and students of color fall behind groups often stereotyped as ideal students, such as white girls, academic disparities would develop on the basis of race and gender instead of academic merit. If this is the case, inequalities by race, ethnicity and gender as well as harmful stereotypes may become further entrenched at a crucial point in students’ educational careers. Understanding who falls behind and who gets ahead during the transition to high school is critical for policies aimed at reducing educational inequality.

We focus on how the transition from middle school to high school affects the GPAs of white, black, and Latino boys and girls. We pay special attention to differences by race/ethnicity and gender that emerge among freshmen who were high academic performers in middle school. GPA at the high school starting gate is important because it affects class rank and cumulative high school GPA—both important predictors of college enrollment and degree completion. In fact, research indicates that boys’ lower high school GPAs are a primary driver of their lower rates of college degree attainment.

This study uses nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to investigate how the transition to high school affects the GPAs of white, black, and Latino young women and men. It considers grade trajectories across the seventh through tenth grades in order to better understand the role of the transition to high school in shaping academic inequality. Comparisons are made among students who differ by race, ethnicity, and gender but who are comparable on academic test scores, family background, behavioral indicators, and other factors. 

Key Findings

  • White and black male students in this nationally-representative study suffer greater academic losses in their GPA between eighth and ninth grades compared to their female counterparts (See Figure 1).
  • The beginning of academic risk for white and black male students begins prior to the transition and is a continuation of GPA losses experienced by white and black students during middle school. Moreover, these young men do not recover their academic losses after ninth grade (See Figure 1).
  • Among all groups who earned high GPAs in middle school, high-achieving black males suffer the steepest academic declines when they transition to high school while high-achieving white females experience the smallest dip in GPA. On average, black males with a 3.5 or higher GPA in eighth grade suffered about double the academic declines as white females when they transitioned to high school (See Figure 2).
  • The male students who fall behind the white female students are comparable on characteristics such as academic grades, achievement test scores, family background, relationships with teachers, behavioral engagement, and others. The only differences are gender, and for black male students, gender and race.

Policy Implications

Disparities in high school GPA—which begin to count in ninth grade toward class rank and overall academic standing—are powerful predictors of college graduation and a major factor underlying gender and racial/ethnic disparities in educational attainment. Therefore, these findings point to implications for inequalities within and beyond high school. Of greatest concern is the finding that high-achieving black males fall the furthest behind during the transition to high school. This finding suggests that academic status may be reshaped based on the characteristics of race and gender instead of academic talent.

Research suggests that teachers may rely on gender and racial stereotypes about academic performance when they evaluate students. This propensity can be heightened when evaluators have little information to rely upon, such as when high school teachers receive a new cohort of freshman students. A potential solution to mitigate academic losses in the transition to high school for boys, especially black boys, is vertical-teaming, or the sharing of student information between middle school and high school teachers. This includes creating a mechanism for the individual strengths and reputations of incoming ninth grade students to travel with them to their high school, thereby disrupting the tendency of teachers to ascribe stereotyped characteristics of marginalized groups to individual students.

 

Figure 1

sutton-hs-transition-fig-1

The dark blue bars above show that, in the transition from 8th to 9th grade, white and black males have bigger losses in their grade point averages (GPAs) compared to white females. The light blue bars show that the losses actually started earlier, in the transition from 7th to 8th grade.

Figure 2 sutton-hs-transition-fig-2

This figure shows that the grade point averages (GPA) of high-achieving 8th graders decline in 9th grade but that the declines are largest for high-achieving black males. In contrast, there are no differences among lower-performing students (those who finished 8th grade with a 2.5 GPA). 

Reference

Sutton, A., Langenkamp, A.G., Muller, C., & Schiller, K.S. (2018.) Who gets ahead and who falls behind during the transition to high school? Academic performance at the intersection of race/ethnicity and gender. Social Problems 65(2):154–173.

Suggested Citation

Sutton, A., Langenkamp, A.G., Muller, C., & Schiller, K.S. (2018.) White and black boys fall further behind white girls in the transition to high school. PRC Research Brief 3(18). DOI:10.15781/T2FT8F51H.

About the Authors

April Sutton (asutton@ucsd.edu) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. Amy G. Langenkamp is O'Shaughnessy Assistant Professor of Sociology Chair of Educational Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Sutton and Langenkamp are former NICHD Graduate Student Trainees with the Population Research Center. Chandra Muller is a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin and faculty research associate with the PRC, and Kathryn S. Schiller is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy & Leadership at the University of Albany State University of New York.

Acknowledgements

This research uses data from the AHAA study, which was funded by a grant (R01 HD040428-02, Chandra Muller, PI) from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and a grant (REC-0126167, Chandra Muller, PI, and Pedro Reyes, Co-PI) from the National Science Foundation. This research was also supported by Grant 5 R24 HD042849, Population Research Center, and Grant 5 T32 HD007081, Training Program in Population Studies, awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver NICHD. Any opinions, findings, and recommendations presented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the granting agencies.


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