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The Dropout Crisis Debate


The so-called "dropout crisis" in the nation's schools doesn't really exist, argued Lawrence Mishel in a recent Education Week Commentary. Countering research and data generated mostly by education researchers Jay P. Greene and Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute and Chris Swanson of the EPE Research Center, Mishel argues that, in fact, national economic data indicate that high school graduation rates—for both blacks and whites—have actually been improving.

In their strongly worded response, Greene, Winters, and Swanson defend their reliance on Department of Education data for calculating the troubling dropout rate. The economic data that Mishel recommends, they argue, are inappropriate and incomplete indicators of dropout trends.

What do you think? Are high school dropout rates in the United States largely exaggerated? Or are researchers correct in suggesting that dropout rates are unacceptably high?


Drop-Out rates are unacceptably high. As a Middle School teacher I see hundreds of kids that go on to the High School and do NOT graduate four years later. Where are they?

For my own satisfaction I calculated the grduation rate in my kids school district by subtracting graduates from the number of freshmen four years earlier. The 8 year average for my kid's district is a 51% dropout rate. When I presented the data to the school board, they were shocked. The official numbers that they report to the state are much lower. The administration's response was to try to discredit my numbers by suggesting that most of those kids transferred to other districts and probably did graduate.

In reality the problem could be much worse because during the same 8 year period the district enrollment grew by over 5,000 students. Enrollment growth has a tendency to hide the problem suing my formula.

The problem with determining dropout rates is the lack of reliable numbers. Longitudinal studies suggest dropouts, but do nbot consider attrition due to students moving out of the district or even those that leave for a semester/school year and return. Census data may include G.E.D. certificate holders and may be subject to misinformation. NELS relies on reports from individual states and school districts that have ample incentive to hide high dropout rates, or at least to spin the numbers. Keeping reliable records may be difficult and not especially cost effective, as individual students would have to be tracked through at least their last four years of school. Tracking cohorts from 9th grade through graduation runs the risk of losing track of individuals that leave the area, become seriously ill and must leave school for a time, or students that are arrested and incarcerated for a time. There are many variables in the dropout picture. That is why Texas developed leaver codes to account for "missing" students. Another factor to consider is how many individuals are simply buying a diploma from some source, like the internet. How many employers are actually checking to determine if an applicant did, in fact graduate from high school? I do not think I ever been asked to produce a diploma and after so many years, I am not sure where that high school diploma is.
Is it really important to know the dropout rate? Is it not more important to educate the students that are in school?

Yes, the drop-out rates are unacceptably high, by any measure. We can quibble about which measure to use--but the reality is that in some demographics (low income black males in particular) fewer than 50% graduate. Nor do they wind up in legal and legitimate employment sufficient to support themselves.

We need to continue (or initiate) the push for universal graduation, agree on a single standard of measurement (preferably not the Texas model that allows for plenty of fudging regarding where they went), and hold districts and states accountable for honest reporting.

We are not likely to succeed in any great measure in educating the students that remain until we resolve the problem of meeting the needs of those who leave. Accountability for the remainder only leads (and has lead), not only to turning a blind eye to meeting the needs of the broad spectrum, but also to hiding our failures by pushing them out the door.

As a former GED teacher, I was shocked at how many of my students came straight from their high school counselor who advised them to "just go get a GED."

As someone with 20 years of experience in the field, there is no doubt that graduation rates are inflated in most states, principally due to the way that those rates are calculated. Margo's insight is right on the money. Many schools have a practice of doing exactly what Margo suggests: encouraging some of it students to leave school and attempt a GED, particularly if the student is troubled and takes more management than other students.

I once worked in a District where a local judge would "sentence" troubled students to drop out of school and enroll in the GED program, even though my signature as a (then) principal was required for any drop out under the age of 18. Another common practice is to encourage special education students to drop out as well, often without the legal conferencing that is required prior to such a move. The worst element of all of this is that the students dropping out and being encouraged to drop out are typically the poorest and least prepared students.

My experience is anecdotal, but my sense is that (while we are graduating more students than ever before) we are still losing way more students than are being reported by states that are claiming graduation rates in the 90 percent range. The true rate is much less than that.

The solutions are complex, but a rigid, test-driven educational model that eliminates arts, music, recess, and other kid-friendly activities is part of the problem. Until we recognize that kids come in all forms and are willing to fully support each one of them, we will continue to lose too many students, most of them poor. And our federal government couldn't be more clueless about the real problems facing schools in these NCLB times. The data is in and it's conclusive: The vast majority of schools not making AYP in this country do so because their Special Education and ESL students are not performing at the same level as their regular education students. What sweeping moves does our government offer? Why, more math and science AP teachers, which will further support schools' already most powerful students.

No one will refuse help in upper level math and science, but the political rhetoric about needing a better educated workforce gets trotted out by most politicians and ignores the real fact that in the 90's this country experienced the largest economic boom in the history of the world, only to have its schools rewarded with NCLB. The disconnect between what politicians think (and say) about schools and what really is happening is striking and certainly ignores the unprecedented good that our schools do. More importantly, it ignores real discussions and solutions for the monumental societal problems that affect many of the students that we are discussing in this thread.

Schools often stand alone in this battle. They do the best they can each and every day, and they do it on a limb while getting frequent criticism solely because schools have always been an easy target for politicians whose concern is more about pandering to special interest groups than to rolling up sleeves and really partnering with schools to find solutions that will truly help us in our quest to help every child succeed, even those with mighty odds stacked against them.

The numbers fly around at such volume and cross-currents that anyone can say anything they want and use whatever hocus-pocus math they wish to get there.

I am a heavy-duty user of the NCES grade-cohort longitudinal studies, and believe that an adjudicated sampling design and unobtrusive transcript evidence is far more persuasive than imputations from either CCD or CPS. In the case of NELS, where we start in the 8th grade, 78 percent of the base year population wound up with a standard high school diploma "on-time," i.e. by July 1992. [Please note that some missing data on type of diploma and date of issuance were filled in when college transcripts were received in 2000. Many colleges and community colleges put that information on transcripts, and since we entered the college transcript data ourselves and were holding in our hands the 60,000 pieces of paper at issue, what you see on NCES CD#2003-402 (restricted) is the most accurate account of NELS that you can get.]

Now, do I think the 78 percent figure is high? Yes, a little. Why? Because the NELS was "refreshed" twice---in 10th grade and 12th grade---and we inevitably lost some students in systems (whether K-8/9-12 or K-6/7-9/10-12 etc.)
in which the feeder school with the 8th grade participated but the high school did not. How much loss? It's a guess: maybe 3%.

Do I think the Manhattan Institute et al 70 percent figure is low? Yes. Why? Look at the CPS Migration Study of 2002-2003 (Schachter 2004), and note the rate of interstate migration by 15-19 year olds. CCD doesn't really count these people. If one assumes the migration rate is the same over each of the three high school years covered by that population (15/16-soph, 16/17-junior, 17/18 senior) at 3.2 percent, that means CCD is not accounting for the educational status of between 9-10 percent of the 15 year-olds (some of whom, to be sure, had already dropped out/stopped out, of school). So how low is that 70 percent estimate? Again, a guesstimate: I'll give you 5.

Bottom line: An adjusted NELS and an adjusted CCD will pretty much agree with each other.

P.S. I very rarely use Census for education data.

P.S. Want to see what happened to the NELS 1988 8th graders in terms of high school diploma (type and timing), postsecondary entry, and highest credential earned (including enrollment status in 2000 for those who had yet to earn a credential)?

Go to table L12, page 175, of "The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College" (U.S. Dept. of Ed, 2006, available free at www.ed.gov/pubs/edpubs.html).

The problem is not how many dropouts exist or the percentage of dropouts per cohort or per stste, or per school. Dropouts are a symptom of a problem, not specifically a problem. Schools are doing what they can. Schools, despite the appearances (single entrances, supposed security, lockdowns, and in my area, policemen in the halls), are not prisons. students cannot be forced to stay in school. Education must be worthwhile to the students. The object is to educate. We all learn, always, in fact we cannot help but to learn. Teach what needs to be taught, wherever it needs to be taught, in the schools, on the streets, in the workplace, and in the prisons.

I am concerned about this report and the wording. As I read both the article (March 8, 2006) and the response (March 29, 2006), I couldn't help but wonder where was the differenciation between the diplomas and certificates. Both articles refer to HS Diplomas and the GED, but are Regent's Diplomas included with regular diplomas? If so, shouldn't the Regent's Diploma be categorized separately?

Dropout rates have probably stayed about the same; what has changed is that schools and districts are now being more honest about the dropout rate. For instance, when I first started teaching at my school in 1996, they claimed a 95% graduation rate, hence a 5% dropout rate. This was vastly inflated, since the school started with a 9th grade of some 900 students, and a senior class that was regularly below 500 students. Where do those students go? Well, the school did not count them as dropouts if they could get them to transfer to an alternative program, or to withdraw voluntarily, or some other misleading scheme. Now they are being more honest; our school claims close to a 40% dropout rate.

Dropouts obviously get less education. But what about the graduates? The current debate on dropouts uses the census humbers to check the "crisis." They find a fairly high "graduation" rate. What they do not look at is what counts as "graduation." In our school, the courses needed to graduate are decent. But students are able to "make up" credits by completing "night school" or other forms of seat-time. This "education" is greatly inferior to the regular classes. I would guess that at least 20% of our senior class that graduated "on time" made up some of their credits in this way. Other alternative programs have even lower standards than what I have called "packet school." And the courses that students need at the "adult schools" are also much less demanding than the regular classes in high school. Mishel finds 80% graduation rates; but what of the quality? If only 50-60% of students graduate by taking regular classes, and the rest take inferior classes, is this acceptable?

So the debate on the graduation "crisis" needs to take in much more than just "graduating" or "dropping out." The bottom line: did the students get the education they needed to do what they wanted after high school? That is a much more important question. My guess as to the answer: no. THAT is the crisis.

No matter how the dropout rate is calculated, dropping out is a problem. The percentage of students without diplomas is a social problem. One possible answer is more alternatives towards achieving the diploma. If a GED certificate is not equal to a diploma, it is pretty much useless and the program should be replaced with one that leads to a diploma. The GED was meant to be a high school equivalency program and has come to be known as that. If it is not meeting the criterea than it is not meeting the needs of dropouts. Perhaps the standards should be raised. Many dropouts find that theyregret their decision later in life and need a program that will help them achieve a measure of success. Is that not the purpose of Adult literacy programs?

One of the troubling aspects relative to "drop-outs," is that the preponderance of them are boys. We must take a comprehensive look at why programs, pre-K to 12th grade, do not seem to be making a significant progress in addressing the ndevelopmental needs of boys.

First, I think there is still some talking past each other in the needlessly confrontational exchange initiated by Lawrence Mishel. In particular, a key point that requires attention: Is there any meaningful difference between a person who is awarded a "regular" high school diploma after four years and one who receives the (same?) "regular" diploma after more than four years? Does the latter group, high school drop-ins, look more like "regular" graduates or dropouts?

This distinction is important because estimates of the dropout rate depend on who counts as a dropout--an important part of the fuss started by Mishel but not adequately responded to by Greene et al. More importantly, the research to date indicates that the group of otherwise comparable persons who follow the GED path are not, on average, the same as the group who have been awarded a "regular" diploma. Without meaningful distinctions, all the numbers debate is hot air. For example: Are drop-ins and GED recipients more comparable than on-time graduates and drop-ins?

Second, as noted by others who have responded, the official arithmetic for calculating graduation rates can be quite misleading. When I was a high school teacher (ten years ago), the denominator for the official graduation rate was based on the number of 10th grade students, not 9th grade students. Though this tended to solve the problem of on-time vs. late graduation, because most students who had trouble keeping pace with credits for graduation had it in 9th grade, the enormous dropout rate among those who were off pace in 9th grade was concealed. That is, a lot of students who dropped out never earned enough credits to be promoted to 10th grade.

Fortunately, both Greene et al. and Mishel are fully aware of the discrepancies and the strategies for overcoming the problem of believing administrative graduation rates. (As Greene et al. pointed out, the number of diploma recipients and the number of students enrolled in each grade are believable, but politically consequential numbers like graduation rates can be hard to reconcile.)

Third, I would like to say thank you to Cliff Adelman for adding some clarification about the value of NELS data in contributing to the effort to simply provide a number (percentage) for the high school dropout rate. His informative and honest assessment of the NELS data is quite helpful.

However, I take exception to his notion that migration should necessarily result in underestimation of on-time graduation. On a national basis, the only meaningful migration is net change in the number of high-school-age persons into or out of the country. Otherwise, neither the national denominator nor the national numerator should be affected (i.e., intrastate and state-to-state migration does not change national totals, only international migration has an effect).

Given the relationship between mobility and graduation, domestic migration is certainly going to affect on-time graduation, but Cliff Adelman's brief posting does not clearly make this statement. I don't think domestic migration is likely to make a 5% error for simply counting high-school-age persons (i.e., at the time the CCD data are collected it is very likely that the mobile students were enrolled somewhere--counted--even if not where they eventually graduated or dropped out).

Fourth, I believe that Ms. Miranda's question is more important than some people realize. In addition to various honors diplomas (endorsements of exceptional performance), there have been diplomas awarded to special education students who are unlikely to receive more than a certificate of attendance in the current system of test-based accountability. Students taking alternate assessments aligned to alternate achievement standards, whose numbers are supposed to be capped at 1% of the school population, are not likely to get a "regular" diploma, but will not necessarily drop out either.

In other words, both historically and presently, the "regular" diploma, the GED, and dropping out are not the only ways to terminate one's relationship to K-12 schooling. What counts and why are important considerations that get glossed over when national aggregate statistics are generated, as do state and local variations that make diploma categories less uniform than their names imply.

Finally, given the wide array of occupations in the economy, for which is the high school diploma is supposed to signal adequate preparation and aptitude for success? Are high school dropouts actually able to avail themselves of the labor market for which the eligible participants? We can bemoan the dropout rate and aspire to greater educational success, but we also have to recognize that the high school diploma is a weak signal and that the domestic labor market has some gross inefficiencies in allocating persons to occupations.

I have been in public education in California since 1990, primarily working in 7-12 settings with immigrant, high risk learners, & generation l.5 (limited bilingual learners who speak another language but neither read/write it). I currently work in an inner-city high school in California. It is a high school that received Carneige funds for "reform" in 2000. I see the "dropout" in my classroom....I have already "lost" about 50% of the kids in my 10th grade English class (high risk, meaning kids are scoring far-below basic on the CSTs and thus reading anywhere from 3-5 years below eqivalent age-grade level). The reform has provided for these students to receive 10 hrs. of English /English enrichment weekly. Life would be very linear if we could just double the time and double the results; however "the system" does not recognize that the majority of these kids are dealing with families who have experienced unemployment, substance abuse, death of close family member, and overloaded one parent families simply trying to pay the basic bills. There are no vocational programs, no specific counseling programs, and basically these kids are in more segregated schools that in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education. Why is the inequity so great between "white, highly affluent Asian" and inner city schools of mostly "kids of color"? Ask the Governor , ask the Senate, ask NCLB why the funding for segregated schools is so diminished in high poverty areas....even ask teachers who have given their "resources" in every possible way to "stand up" in these schools! Then ask why kids drop out & why they lose hope? When is the last time that any "Superintendent of Education" has come to a real inner city classroom to listen to the kids?

Teacher - Sacramento, Ca.

There are both technical issues here and larger questions about the value of a diploma.

Technically, I think Greene, Swanson, Warren, et al. are closer to the mark than Mischel (though I think Warren's work is the most technically rigorous thus far). With due respect to Adelman, there are issues with NELS both with respect to the refreshing of the sample at 10th and 12th grades and also with regard to the exclusion of some from the sample. Even if each is only 2-3%, that can lead to an overestimate of graduation. In addition, NELS examined a cohort that would have graduated (on time) in the early 1990s, when graduation rates as measured in other ways (e.g., diploma-to-17-year-old ratio) was higher than for the years before or since.

Adelman is correct about the sensitivity of any graduation measure to migration. One should thus be skeptical of any official rate (e.g., Florida's, and the one proposed by the National Governors Association) that allows for the adjustment of a longitudinal cohort by unaudited transfer records. And there are other "quasi-migration" ways of discounting dropouts that are equally troubling. In Florida, for example, it looks as if the official graduation rate excludes those who are recorded as transferring out to adult-ed programs--i.e., dropouts who immediately enroll in a GED program may not be counted as dropouts. They may just disappear. (See http://www.shermandorn.com/mt/archives/000450.html for an informal analysis of the discrepancies between Florida's official measure and other measures.)

Beyond the measurement of dropping out is the question of what is important about a diploma. As a society, we still haven't decided what that is--a measure of some level of general education, a chit to use to get to college or get a job, a rite of passage, or something else? I wish things had changed dramatically since my book was published 10 years ago, but the debates just haven't changed that much.

I am presently doing research on black males and low graduation rates in Detroit.

This is an artile that I sent to Time Magazine about Dropout Nation:

I wanted to send your editors a letter relating to Nathan Thornburgh’s April 2006 articles titled Dropout Nation. While some of your points about the GED test are relevant and troubling, you have also painted an unfair picture of GED test takers. I am on of the many that have received a GED and benefited greatly from the opportunity.

I left High School to join the US Navy and had to have a GED to enter the service. After receiving my GED, not only did I join the Navy but excelled in each duty station and I was even fortunate enough to have served with US Navy SEALS as a technical expert before being discharged. After leaving the Navy to pursue my education, I graduated Cume Laude with a BS degree from The University of Alabama. I also received my Masters Degree in Health Education and I have completed all but my dissertation for a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology from Alabama.

In my present role, I am the Vice President for business development for AccessPlus, an educational software company that ironically enough develops custom programs for Adult Education and GED scoring. We presently provide GED scoring services for the State of Alabama and Adult Education Management Systems for Alabama, Arkansas, and Idaho. We are also working with the GED testing Service on GED essay scoring software and a system for tracking GED accommodation requests.

I just wanted to point out that the GED was the first step on a path of continued education has allowed me to succeed in the education technology field. We are not all that the Times articles suggest. You should have interviewed the many people that have used the GED to get a leg up and have succeeded. Now that would be an article worth reading.

Thanks and have a great day!


Michael L. Newman
V.P. Business Development
Access Plus

[email protected]

If you can read this, thank a teacher.
If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.

IEP/special education diploma sucks and its whereless shit.

If any one has any data or a site that I could find data on please leet me know through this site. I am doing a project on the subject and could use all the information I can get. Thank You!

i think that drop out rates are on the rise and we need to post more information on this topic on the web to try to stop it

go sabres yaha

hey joe comment me back and we can have a debate about that ok cuz i dont agree with you topic or the information

Has anyone wondered why no one from any other country talks about their dropout rate? It is because America is the only country that has dropouts. Every other country does not allow discipline problems or low academic achievers into the high school system. They kick them out. Their economies have not collapsed. their crime rates are not sky high compaired to ours.The mantra of you can not succede in life without a High school education is a joke in the rest of the world.

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