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Education Reporter

Dropout Figures Don't Add Up
States Cheat on Graduation Rates
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Over the past few years, discrepancies have come to light between states' actual graduation and dropout rates and the ones they report to the federal government to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act. North Carolina, for example, used a new formula to recalculate its graduation rate from 95% in 2006 to a more accurate — and disturbing — 68% in 2007.

A few states, such as Mississippi, California, and Delaware, currently maintain two sets of figures on dropouts, reporting the better numbers to Washington and using the worse ones in policy discussions and dropout prevention campaigns at home. Mississippi reports an 87% graduation rate for NCLB purposes, but admits a rate of around 63% based on a different formula.

In 2001, the Manhattan Institute's Jay P. Greene estimated that the national graduation rate was 15 percentage points lower than previously estimated. Greene's estimate compared the number of students enrolled in 8th grade with the number of diplomas issued to graduating 12th-grade students. This straightforward formula calculated that just 71% of American students finish school, compared to the federal government's estimate of 86%.

Since Greene's formula seems so sensible, one might wonder how else states calculate dropout rates. Some states count those who drop out but later earn a G.E.D. as graduates. New Mexico calculates only the percentage of enrolled 12th-graders who graduate, a formula that leaves out the many students who drop out before grade 12.

In response to Greene's work and the work of a few other critics, in 2005 the Department of Education estimated graduation rates for all 50 states by dividing the number of diplomas each state issued by the estimated number of freshmen who had started high school four years earlier. According to that formula, nine states were overestimating their graduation rates by more than 10 percentage points.

Later that year, all 50 state governors agreed to standardize their method for calculating dropout rates. Rather than comparing numbers of graduates and younger students, the governors agreed to calculate rates by tracking individual students through high school. To do that, states need a statewide school record system. Some states already have such systems or are building them, but critics say that tracking individual students at the state level is unnecessary and could result in privacy violations and other abuses.

Spellings has yet to announce the formula the Department of Education wants states to use.

The EPE Research Center and the America's Promise Alliance issued a report on graduation rates at the end of March. The report estimated the overall graduation rate at 70% (74% of female students and 66% of male students graduate). Rates also differ by race, with 80% of Asian-Americans, 76% of whites, 58% of Hispanics and 50% of African-Americans finishing school.

Suburban districts graduate 74.9% of their students, while rates in districts in large cities are shockingly low. "Our analysis finds that graduating from high school in American's largest cities amounts, essentially, to a coin toss," the study reported. "Only about one-half (52%) of students in the principal school systems of the 50 largest cities complete high school with a diploma." Rates in many cities are much lower than half: 40% in Cleveland, 35% in Baltimore, and just 25% in Detroit.

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