US high school dropout rate: high, but how high?

The national dropout rate is notoriously hard to pin down, and the latest effort to do so – showing alarmingly low graduation rates in some parts of America – is likely to intensify the statistics wars.

Nearly 1 in 3 high school students in the Class of 2006 will not graduate this year, the Editorial Projects in Education (EDE) Research Center reported Tuesday.

The picture is worse for urban school districts, especially those serving poor students, the new study shows. Graduation rates in the largest school districts range from 21.7 percent in Detroit and 38.5 percent in Maryland's Baltimore County to 82.5 percent in Virginia's Fairfax County.

It's the first in an annual Graduation Project series, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The most detailed analysis covers the 2002-03 school year, using the most recent data available. A feature of the new study makes it possible for readers to create a report for each district, including comparisons with state and national figures.

"Our research paints a much starker picture of the challenges we face in high school graduation. When 30 percent of our ninth-graders [ultimately] fail to finish high school with a diploma, we are dealing with a crisis that has frightening implications for our ... future," says Christopher Swanson, director of the EDE Research Center.

The trouble is, it may not be accurate.

Some education groups praised the study as an important contribution to the field of dropout statistics. "It's going to help people understand that we can't deny or ignore this crisis anymore," says Ross Wiener of the Education Trust.

Others, who see such studies as overblown, were as quick to denounce it. "Swanson's measure is seriously inaccurate," says Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute and author of another study on dropout rates. "It's ... inappropriate for comparisons across states and school districts, the reason being that his formula is very much affected by how much grade retention there is in ninth and 10th grade. Any school that retains students in ninth grade is automatically going to look worse, whether graduation rates really are lower [there] or not," he said of the new report.

His own report, based on the US Education Department's National Educational Longitudinal Study, suggests that in 1992, 78 percent of students received a regular diploma, rising to 83 percent by 1994. For African-American students, whose graduation rates lag behind the US average, the figure rose from 63 percent to 74 percent over that period.

In fact, education experts say, none of the existing dropout-rate data gives a full picture. Governors are making changes that will yield better counts within a few years, they add.

Accurate reporting is important because so much education policy now turns on statistics. Misleading data can do harm, says Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy. "If you raise doubts about the effectiveness of the schools, you can put into disrepute people's efforts to reduce dropout rates. If you use less dramatic data, you can lull people into complacency." Accurate numbers are needed, he says, "before we can fashion some solution."

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