Report questions severity of dropout crisis

By: - April 20, 2006 12:00 am

Dueling reports offered sharply conflicting claims this week on the number of high school students, especially minorities, who drop out of school and fail to earn a diploma.

Widely accepted reports in recent years that two-thirds of all students and only half of minorities graduate from high school have sparked a major push by the nation’s governors and President Bush to overhaul America’s high schools. The National Governors Association last summer issued a report sharply criticizing states for failing to accurately track dropout rates, and all 50 governors have since signed an agreement to adopt improved, uniform calculations for graduation rates.

But a new report released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) April 20 claims that high school graduation rates are much higher than commonly reported, with 75 percent of minority students and 82 percent of all students earning diplomas on time. The report, Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends, claimed that high school completion rates have improved significantly for all students and that the black-white graduation gap has been cut in half over the past 40 years. EPI is a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that focuses on policies affecting low-and middle-income people.

EPI’s report conflicts with the most recent findings released by the Manhattan Institute on April 18 that put the national graduation rate at 70 percent, with 78 percent of white students, 55 percent of African American students and 53 percent of Hispanic students earning high school diplomas in 2003, the most recent year of available data. It concluded that the nation’s graduation rates have not changed significantly over the past 20 years. It also reported that 72 percent of females graduate compared to 65 percent of males.

The Manhattan Institute, a New York-based nonprofit group that advocates free-market economics and education reform, calculated graduation rates by comparing the number of ninth graders in a school to the number of diplomas issued four years later. The EPI report was based on official government data on high school completion compiled in several surveys by the Census Bureau and other federal agencies.

Jay Greene, a scholar for the Manhattan Institute who developed its method of calculating graduation rates, said that the conflicting EPI report is based on official government data that has been proven inaccurate by independent estimates such as his.

“What (EPI) is suggesting is that we ought to believe the results of surveys based on a random sample of the population, rather than the actual count of the population,” which is the opposite of what social scientists do, Greene said.

EPI president Lawrence Mishel, who authored the report and an upcoming book on high school dropouts with economist Joydeep Roy, calculated national graduation rates based on the findings of government household surveys used by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), which tracked a national sample of students that graduated in 1992.

“The very low graduation rates that are being cited are out of sync with what the most reliable data sources tell us. We hope this report will clear the fog, create a better understanding of the true challenges we face and the progress we’ve made,” Mishel said in a telephone conference.

Other education advocates said that education reform needs to be based on data collected from schools, not from government surveys based on questionnaires given to adults.

“No matter which report is more accurate, using government surveys of people in their 20s misses the fact that we need the data tied directly to our schools to hold them responsible for educating our kids and preparing them to go onto college or succeed in the workforce,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization headed by the nation’s governors that advocates for higher academic standards.

Mishel and Greene will debate the discrepancies of their reports in Washington, D.C., April 27 at the National Press Club.

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