TOPICS > Education

High School Drop-out Rates Rise

June 27, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Three million high school seniors are graduating
this year, but even as they march off the stage, diplomas in hand, educators are worried about the
students not in this picture: the drop-outs.

One of the main reasons teenagers give for quitting school: Their
classes aren’t interesting.

EVOYAL PROCTOR, Former Student: I was bored, one. And I had
a lot of things going on in my life at the time, and people telling me that I wasn’t going to make it
and all of that, it just got to me. So I just stopped going.

RAY SUAREZ: Evoyal Proctor and Isaac Love both dropped out.

ISAAC LOVE, Former Student: I was in the 11th grade at the
time that I dropped out of high school to pursue employment, and I wanted a car, as, you know, the
average youngster, you know, person would. And so I had gotten a job with janitorial services. And I worked, and
bought me a car, earned money and bought a car.

RAY SUAREZ: But after an accident on the job, Isaac found he
couldn’t do manual labor any longer and he didn’t have the skills for an office job.

Love and Proctor turned to a program at Catholic Community
Services in Downtown Washington, D.C., that helps students get a general education degree, or GED, the
equivalent of a high school diploma. Both got their GED certificates and plan on applying to college.

ISAAC LOVE: I feel more confident that I can handle anything
an employer would give me, as far as work assignments, and I know that now that I can learn and I can
also be an achiever in the workplace, as well as in my daily life. I feel real great.

RAY SUAREZ: Being an achiever is tough for high school
drop-outs. They’re twice as likely as graduates to slip into poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

TEACHER: Is that a good option for you?

RAY SUAREZ: To help keep kids in class, some school
districts have created what they call alternative high schools. Schools like the Landmark
Career Academy
in a mall in Alexandria, Virginia, offer individualized programs and practical skills. It’s part of a partnership
with a nonprofit group called Communities in Schools that’s helped more than one million at-risk students this

JAMAL KAYANI, Student at Alternative School: You come, you
walk in, you feel comfortable. Everybody kind of talks to you. You just feel like you’re at home. So
it’s a lot — it’s way more easier to get stuff done.

RAY SUAREZ: Seventeen-year-old Jamal Kayani was on the brink
of leaving high school after a difficult transition from middle school. At his old school, he was an
average student. But at Landmark, he’s excelled.

Coming to this program was the turning point, allowing him
to graduate.

JAMAL KAYANI: I didn’t want to be another teen statistic in
the drop-out rate, because I’ve heard and I’ve seen that this year the rate has gone very high up, to
where kids are just dropping out and trying to get their GED.

RAY SUAREZ: While experts agree the drop-out rate is a
problem — the Gates Foundation called it a silent epidemic — they disagree on just how big.

The U.S. Department of Education puts the official drop-out
rate at just below 10 percent, or one out of every 10 students. But research conducted by the Manhattan
Institute found that the number could be as high as one in three.

They found a 70 percent graduation rate overall among
African-Americans and Hispanics; the rates were between 53 percent and 55 percent. The difference comes in
who gets counted. The Manhattan Institute compared the total number of students who enter high school with the
number of students who receive diplomas four years later.

And, yet, another set of numbers comes from studies done by
the Economic Policy Institute. They estimate the overall graduation rate at 82 percent, with between 61
percent and 74 percent of minorities graduating.

One effort to come up with an accurate number of high school
drop-outs has come from the governors of all 50 states. They’ve pledged to work together to develop a
common method for measuring the drop-out rate.

Finding the right number

RAY SUAREZ: To discuss the magnitude of the high school drop-out problemand why there are no definitive figures on this, we're joined by the authors of two reports that lookedat that issue.

Larry Mishel is president of the Economic Policy Institute.

And Jay Greene is the head of the education reformdepartment at the University of Arkansas. He's also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Jay Greene, let's start with you, with the basic question: Arethere more American kids dropping out than you would be able to know from the published andannounced statistics given by school districts?

JAY GREENE, Manhattan Institute: I think so. I think areasonable estimate of the national graduation rate is about 70 percent. And that is higher than officiallypublished statistics by school districts and by the U.S.Department of Education.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Larry Mishel, same question. If you justwent by what schools are telling us, is the drop-out rate actually higher?

LAWRENCE MISHEL, Economic Policy Institute: Well, I thinkthe dropout rate is roughly that nine out of 11 students do graduate -- that's about 82-83 percent -- andaround three out of four minority students.

School districts don't always report things that way, nordoes the national Department of Education. I think it's important to realize that we've made tremendousprogress over time in lifting the graduation rate of all students.

Now, the gap between blacks and whites, whites andHispanics, is still far too high, but it's a lot better than it was 40 years ago. For instance, only around40 percent of blacks completed high school with a diploma or an equivalency certificate in the early 1960s,and now the completion rate is double that.

So we've made tremendous progress, but we still have a waysto go.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Greene, do you agree that we've madetremendous progress, even if you two gentlemen may disagree on the numbers?

JAY GREENE: I actually don't think we've made much progressover the last three decades. If you simply look at the ratio of the number of diplomas awarded to the17-year-old population, according to the census, we've had a graduation rate nationwide of about 70 percent forthree decades.

We hit actually a peak in national graduation rates in 1979at 76 percent, and now it's slipped down to about 70 percent. There were 2.7 million high schooldiplomas awarded in 2003 by public high schools. And, according to the census, there were about four million kidswho could have been in that cohort to graduate, so about 70 percent.

An accurate formula

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dr. Mishel, why is it so hard to geteverybody on the same page and come up with a number that both reflects reality and everybody can agreeon? A certain cohort of kids marches through the front door in the ninth grade. Some number less than that marchesout in the 12th. How come it's so hard to get an accurate number?

LARRY MISHEL: Well, it's hard because schools only reporthow many students are in ninth grade and then how many diplomas are granted every year. We don't know howmany students actually enter ninth grade for the first time because many students are retained and repeat.

And we don't know, of the diplomas that are granted, whetherthey are for any particular cohort or class.

So we can't reallymatch how many people walked in and how many people walked out. And we don'tknow for any particular school or school district, really, how manypeople transferred in or transferred out.

I know from national data, which follows students over time-- so I don't have to worry about how many people started, how many people transfer in, transfer out --that the graduation rate is around 82, 83 percent, and three out of four for minorities.

We know that, at the national level, where we really have aproblem is: Do we have any data at the local school district or school level that can tell us graduationrates? The answer is we don't really have much going there, and I fear we won't for quite a long time.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Greene, how do you answer that? Howdo you come up with a number that works for all the people who need to know?

JAY GREENE: Well, I think it's relatively easy to figure outwhat the national graduation rate must look like, because, again, while we don't know precisely how manyenter ninth grade every year, we have a pretty good idea of how many are in the age cohort that ought to begraduating from census figures.

And we also know how many diplomas are awarded pretty well. Andso, for the figure to be 82 percent, as Dr. Mishel says, there would have to be a half-million morediplomas awarded than are actually reported by public schools. And so we know it has to be less than that.

Now, I think Dr. Mishel is entirely right that it's hard forus to know it with precision at an individual school level or school district level becausethere we don't have the same reliable information about how many students enter ninth grade for the first time, butwe can still come up with ballpark estimates that will be roughly accurate.

Who do we count?

RAY SUAREZ: Should districts be able to count someone whogets a GED -- years down the road -- be able to count someone who gets a diploma in five or six years asa successfully educated student?

LARRY MISHEL: Well, I think we ought to have graduationmeasures that show all the different ways of doing it, how many people got a diploma on time, how manypeople got it from five or six years, how many people got a GED.

We need to know all those different things. I think in somecommunities, I don't think we ought to have a lot of pressure that it has to be actually on time. Ithink sometimes students struggle. We actually retain them to make sure that they covered the ninth gradematerial, so we should give them five years to graduate.

But if we're really going to hold schools accountable, thenwe really need to give them the resources to develop the statistical capacity, and I don't think anyoneis really talking about that right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, is it fair to say that youwould favor in your studies a more restrictive measure so that the school numbers, announced numbers, mightreflect your research more closely?

JAY GREENE: Well, I think the headline -- I agree with Dr.Mishel that we ought to have multiple measures of graduation rates. But I do think that the headlinenumber ought to focus on students who receive a regular high school diploma and not include GED recipientsfor a few reasons.

One is that GED recipients don't have the same life outcomesas regular graduates. They have life outcomes that look very much like drop-outs, and so wewouldn't want to combine them with regular graduates.

Also, GED recipients, properly speaking, are drop-outs fromthe high school system who later earn a certificate, and so we wouldn't want to credit them to theschool from which they dropped out.

So I think there are some good reasons to focus on aheadline number, which would be the regular high school graduation rate, and I also entirely agree with Dr.Mishel that the resources that schools have to compute this accurately are lacking. And their motivation to countit accurately is also lacking.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Mishel, a quick response?

LARRY MISHEL: Yes, I undertook research in this area becauseI was worried by people claiming that only half the minority students were graduating. In fact, I foundthat three out of four are graduating with a regular diploma, and half of those who would be considereddrop-out actually get a GED, which allows them to go to college, go into the military or other training, and thatthese completion rates have actually grown.

So I think it is important to keep track of what schools do,but we also -- we're a country of second chances, and we have second-chance systems. We need to beable to provide them. I think we should not to put down a GED. Sometimes that's a good alternative. I think wewould prefer that most kids get a diploma, because that is going to be better for them in the long run.

But a lot of people get a GED, go into the military, and dovery well, and maybe one will be president some day.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Mishel, Professor Greene, thank you, both.