Dropout Rate Is Climbing and Likely to Go
by Richard Rothstein, New York Times, October 9, 2002
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With so much attention paid to test scores, an equally
important gauge of school performance has mostly been
overlooked. High school dropout rates seem to have jumped.
Although dropouts are notoriously hard to track, the best
available data show that in 1990, 26 percent of American
adolescents failed to graduate from high school. By 2000, the
figure had risen, to 30 percent.
Some states may have done a better job than others. Dropout
rates in New York and Texas appear to have gone up by about as
much as the national average. California's rate grew less,
while rates in Massachusetts and North Carolina grew more.
Changes in dropout rates attract little notice, partly because
they are difficult to calculate. A school has no way to keep
track of students who leave. If they move, they may show up in
another school and should not be counted as dropouts.
Counselors have little choice but to accept the word of
students who say they will enroll elsewhere.
Accounting for immigrants, whose numbers grew in the 90's,
confounds matters further. A teenager who migrates here and
never enrolls in school or enrolls only briefly is counted as
a dropout, although American schools should not be held
responsible for the failure to graduate. These immigrants,
however, may not explain all the increase in dropouts.
The most widely reported figures on completing school are from
the Census Bureau, which regularly surveys young adults. But
the Census counts as "completers" those who dropped out but
passed a high school equivalency test.
The equivalency exam probably requires less proficiency than a
diploma, even after it was toughened this year. Because the
number of dropouts who received equivalency certificates grew
in the 90's, the Census' completion rate has fallen more
slowly than the actual graduation rate.
With dropout data so difficult to pin down, there has been too
little discussion about why the rate apparently climbed. One
worrisome possibility is that as states required students to
pass tests for promotion, more pupils who were held back now
leave school when they are old enough to do so.
States are beginning to require students to pass graduation
exams that are tougher than the equivalency test. California,
Florida, Massachusetts and New York are among these. If the
modestly higher standards of the last decade were themselves
enough to cause dropout rates to rise, the new exit exams
could produce even more failure.
It is inevitable that tougher diploma requirements will cause
some increase in dropouts. No exam should be so easy that
everyone can pass. Students who succeed on the new tests may
know more than their predecessors. The price for this higher
achievement for some is that others will fail. The trade-off
cannot be eliminated but can be made less severe by lowering
standards or by giving extra help to those most likely to drop
The decline in high school graduation suggests that neither
strategy was sufficiently employed in the 90's.
Lowering standards, at least until we figure out why the
dropout rate has gone up, may not be such a bad idea. Studies
that compare high school graduates to young people who took
equivalency exams find that even among those who have similar
academic scores graduates have higher earnings, more
employment success and less crime than those who received
A plausible explanation is that employers reward the social
habits and discipline that youths gain from staying in school
to graduate, even when their academic level is below what we
now want graduates to achieve. Or perhaps the self-confidence
of young adults is greater if they graduate from high school
than if they drop out to earn certificates, and that
confidence translates into greater adult success.
New York State used to award one type of diploma to students
in college-preparatory programs and another to those who took
less demanding courses. The second option has been eliminated.
Students who fail on the academic diploma track will have
little choice but to drop out.
Abolishing the lower track was justified by saying that
schools have low expectations for many students, particularly
minorities. Eliminating less demanding courses was expected to
remove an excuse that schools might use to avoid challenging
disadvantaged students to strive for college eligibility.
But a big jump in the dropout rate was not foreseen. Although
some students were inspired to reach for a higher standard,
too many others either have not had the opportunity to succeed
at the higher level or have not been able to do so.
Without academic policies that are more realistically
calibrated, both to students' abilities and to their
opportunities, the dropout rate could continue its climb.