CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The effort to boost standards in public schools enjoys broad bipartisan support, a fact that the recent nomination hearings for Rod Paige as Education secretary underscored. But amid the enthusiasm over progress toward that goal, some education reformers are starting to promote a largely neglected part of that agenda: students who never make it to graduation day.
Most estimates in the past decade indicated the completion rate has run at about 86 percent, close to the 90 percent goal set by the government in 1988.
But the problem is more serious than many previously thought, according to a new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Between just 70 and 75 percent of students graduate from US schools, the study says. "We are way off in understanding our dropout problem," says Gary Orfield, co-director of The Harvard Civil Rights Project.
Part of the discrepancy stems from poor records. Some students who drop out are marked as transfers or their record is simply lost, confounding dropout estimates.
The revised outlook also is rooted in different definitions of what it means to finish high school. Estimates fail to distinguish between those who receive a GED, or General Equivalency Diploma, and a traditional diploma.
The report, commissioned by The Harvard Civil Rights Project and Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that focuses on accountability issues, shows that the number of young people opting for GEDs more than doubled between 1993 and 1998. Most experts are highly skeptical that the GED can carry its recipients as far as a high school diploma.
The need for reliable dropout rates for states and districts is heightened by increased attention to testing and accountability. Without knowing exactly who is making it to the tests, it is hard to fairly assess states' progress in providing a satisfactory education for all students.
"The biggest problem is that the national data don't allow us to get state dropout rates," says Phillip Kaufman, a report author.
Although the US Department of Education has been pouring roughly $45 million into assessment data, only $1 million makes its way to dropout research, according to Mr. Kaufman.
US education officials admit the problem has not received much attention in recent years. "We've neglected that area because we've been focusing on achievement," says Rafael Valdivieso, executive director of the National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board. "Greater emphasis on national accountability will force more attention on dropouts. We need to provide data and money that can help researchers look at dropout rates as part of comprehensive achievement."
The heat surrounding the "Texas miracle," which claimed significant progress in closing the achievement gap between poor minorities and middle-class whites, indicates "what happens when you have poor data," says Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve. TAAS, Texas' high-stakes test, has been lauded as a way to resuscitate underperforming schools and decried as the reason some districts in Texas have dropout rates as high as 50 percent.
Mr. Schwartz is anticipating the same sorts of polarized views about testing and dropout rates to emerge from Massachusetts' high-stakes tests. More-reliable and extensive data, he says, can help clarify what is happening.
Many educators agree on basic steps for keeping kids in school, such as targeting cities with high dropout rates and creating smaller schools. But first, the dropout issue has to move back to the top of the agenda. "Right now schools are talking about tests," says Mr. Orfield. "They're not talking about what happens when these kids don't succeed."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society