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High School Dropout Rates Remain Flat

Dropping out is a stubborn problem, writes Mark Dynarski in a paper released Thursday by the Brookings Institution.

While record high school graduation rates of 80 percent are being celebrated, 1 in 5 students still do not graduate on time. And, as with many education statistics, the picture is bleaker for low-income and underrepresented minority students.

Dynarski is concerned that older students at risk of dropping out of school will be shortchanged in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Too often, districts spend their own resources on dropout-prevention programs with little federal support. If reducing the dropout rate is a priority, then funding for middle schools and early-warning systems are key, writes Dynarski. Federal policymakers tend to favor young students and college students, leaving programs to help middle and high school students to stay on track underfunded.

The Brookings call for more dropout-prevention support was released on the same day that the National Center for Education Statistics came out with its report on trends in high school dropout rates from 1972-2012. Drawing on several surveys and databases, the NCES report includes four rates: the event dropout rate, the status dropout rate, the status completion rate, and the adjusted cohort graduation rate—each providing a unique take on high school dropouts and completers over the past four decades.

NCES reports that the event dropout rate, which estimates the percentage of high school students who left high school between the beginning of one school year and the next without getting a diploma, is 3.4 percent—unchanged since 2009. In 1972, the rate was 6.1 percent. Still, there are gaps among students based on race. The event dropout rate was 1.6 percent for white students, 5.4 percent for Hispanics, and 6.8 percent for black students in 2012.

For a student living in poverty, the event dropout rate was 5.9 percent compared to peers from high-income families with a 1.3 percent dropout rate. There was wide variation by state with dropout rates hitting 7 percent in Alaska and just 1.3 percent in New Hampshire.

With the status dropout rates, the NCES found in 2012 that there were 2.6 million Americans ages 16-24 who are not in a public or private school and have not earned a diploma. This group comprised about 6.6 percent of the 39 million Americans in this age group, down from 14.6 percent in 1972.

The status completion rate is the percentage of individuals ages 18-24 who are not currently enrolled in high school and have earned either a high school diploma or an alternative credential. NCES reports in 2012 that the status completion rate is 91.3 percent. There has been an upward trend since 1980 when the rate was 83.9 percent.

The adjusted cohort rate, reflecting the proportion of public high school freshmen who graduate with a regular diploma within four years, was 80 percent in 2011-12, up from 79 percent in 2010-11.

(See Inside School Research for Sarah Spark's recent blog post on related data from the 2009 High School Transcript Study just released by the NCES.)

In its trends in dropout report, NCES chronicled the negative outcomes related to dropping out of high school including lower salaries, higher unemployment, higher rates of criminal activity, and greater reliance on public assistance.

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