The story behind dropout rates
The commencement speeches are done, the confetti has been swept up, the decorations stored away. But even as graduation 2003 fades into memory, an unanswered question continues to trouble the US education community: When it comes to high school graduation rates, should the nation be celebrating, or looking more deeply into some worrisome trends?Skip to next paragraph
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A recent study by the Child Trends DataBank in Washington offers interesting figures on the nation's high school dropout rates. Overall, US high school dropout rates have fallen, the study indicates.
In 2001, 11 percent of people aged 16 to 24 had dropped out of high school, compared with 15 percent in 1972. Graduation rates compiled by the federal government also show high school graduation has been steadily on the rise for decades. But broken down by race, the Child Trends figures tell a more nuanced story.
The numbers demonstrate that the dropout rate for black students has been cut almost in half over the past 20 years, having fallen to 11 percent in 2001, compared with 21 percent in 1972. But at the same time, the study also shows a stubborn trend for Hispanic student dropout rates. Although down from a peak of 34 percent in 1972, this rate remains extremely high, at 27 percent, in 2001.
On the surface, it would appear that black students are connecting to high school more firmly than in the past, while Hispanic students, for whatever reason, are not.
But it's essential to look more deeply into such numbers, experts say. Ironically, the figures on black students actually conceal a troubling deficit, some insist, while the news about Hispanic students is surprisingly positive.
"There absolutely was a fall in the high school dropout rate" of black students, confirms Bruce Western, professor of sociology at Princeton University in New Jersey. That's the good news. But the bad news follows quickly behind. "About half the fall in the dropout rate is due to the rise in imprisonment of young black males," he says.
Prison inmates generally are excluded in both graduation and dropout counts. At any point in time that practice can invalidate the accuracy of both figures, but the distortion is particularly dramatic at this point in time.
Incarceration rates for black men aged 22 to 30 who haven't finished high school leaped to 40 percent in 1999 from only 14 percent in 1980 - a stunning acceleration unparalleled in US history, Professor Western says.
That doesn't mean that there has been no improvement in dropout rates for black students. "From the mid-1980s to present it's reasonably clear that the dropout rate has declined among blacks," says Robert Hauser, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Professor Hauser uses his own numbers, which show dropout rates for black students declining from a high of 20 percent in the mid-1980s to about 15 percent in the early 1990s, and remaining more or less flat ever since.
But that decline, he says, has little to do with anything schools have or have not done and much more to do with changes within black families.
"There have been increases in parental education and decreases in the number of siblings," he says. "In the mid-1970s and late 1980s there was a big change in the number of children, while at the same time the education level of the parents just kind of marches up."
In the early 1980s black parents had completed an average of 11 years of education, while by the late 1990s that figure was up to about 12 years.
That's incontestably good news for the black community, sociologists agree, but it balances very uncomfortably against the shocking rise in incarceration rates.
Meanwhile, the news about dropout rates may be far better for the Hispanic community than it appears on the surface.
While many studies confirm that the number of Hispanic students who drop out remains high, most fail to take into account the record-high numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants pouring into the US over the past decade or so.
"You have to make a distinction between Hispanic youth born in the US and spending their whole careers in US schools versus those who came later in life," says Richard Fry, senior research associate for the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.
The dropout rate for Hispanic youths born in the US has actually shown a small but significant decline over the 1990s, Dr. Fry says, from 15 percent to 14 percent. "The news is not astoundingly positive, but it's positive," he says. Considering the challenges Hispanic students face in the US, "it's encouraging that dropout rates have fallen a little bit."