Tuesday, April 11, 2006

High School Drop-Outs - Inside the Numbers

From Ash and Po:

[From Ash, 4/13/06: please note a correction at point #7]

As we teased yesterday, this week's cover story for Time is on drop-outs. Oprah, Time and the Gates Foundation all joined forces to address this issue. We haven't yet seen what Oprah's doing, but much of Time's contribution is to expose the breadth of the problem, specifically attacking the drop-out numbers used by the federal, states and local governments -- including a census-reported number that we've got in The Factbook, which says 84% of students graduate high school. Time argues that a third of students aren't graduating. They mention several accounting tricks used to mask the real failure rate.

So which is it? Do 1 out of 3 not graduate, or do 1 out of 6 not graduate?

As always, it's all in how you count and when you count. So this post might get a bit technical, going inside the numbers. But we believe accuracy in journalism is all-important, and we see a little bit of sensationalism going on that we fear will lead to a wider distortion in public perception. We anticipate every other media outlet will now cover this issue, and it will continue to get distorted at each step, like a game of telephone.

So keep the following factors in mind.

1. When you see reported that "1 out of 3 don't graduate," they are talking about public schools, not private schools. 12% of all students are in private schools, and they very rarely drop out.

2. The scores of the American educational system are distorted by the huge influx of immigrants. Twenty percent of our school population are immigrants. First generation immigrants don't do very well - less then half graduate. But here's the reasonably good news: their children do vastly better. Second-generation immigrants graduate at over 80%. Schools are often taking the blame and the heat for what is really a broader social issue.

3. Dropping out is a serious problem, we absolutely agree. We estimate 20% of all high schoolers drop out for at least a short while. But that's not the end of the story. 63% percent of high school drop-outs eventually go back to get their degree or take the GED. More kids eventually get around to it than ever. In 1967, 17% of kids had not received a diploma or a GED by the age of 24. Today, only 10% of kids have done neither by the age of 24. That is improvement, indeed.

4. The Census, in their "84% graduate" number, counts people with GEDs as "graduated." Is that an accounting trick? Hardly, because it's not hidden in their numbers - it's right there. 16% of those who've "graduated" did so via taking the GED rather than receiving a diploma.

5. Is the GED a waste? Meaning, should we count them as graduated? The Time article makes a case that GEDs aren't useful in entering the workforce - they're not enough. While we don't completely disagree with that, we must recognize that 43% of former dropouts actually make it to college. Often people finally take the GED because they intend to enroll in a community college, bachelor's program, or vocational school. They're not pretending the GED is enough.

6. Are we doing worse than in the past? Most reports say "no." Most suggest that for all the educational reforms applied in the last twenty-five years, our graduation rate has leveled off - but it hasn't gotten worse. In fact, if you allow these same kids another five years to get their act together, more are graduating now than ever - and the improvement has been consistent.

7. Time says that graduation rates are often distorted by excluding prison populations and transients. That might be true of some states and cities, but it's not true of the Federal government - the "84% graduate" figure does not exclude those people. The manipulation of the graduation figures is done primarily by school districts and states -- often because that graduation rates -- and manipulation of them -- directly effects their funding. We do not see the Census as complicit.

[Note/Correction from Ash: Actually, I confused two points. 80.4% of the population 25 and over has a high school education or more, according to the Decentennial Census, while the Current Population Survey has the attainment at 84%, and does exclude prison, military, etc. But I think the point is still the same -- the Feds are counting everyone.]

We agree that drop-outs is a major social concern, and we applaud the attention to it. But the numbers shouldn't be distorted to make the case. They don't need to be distorted. The truth is frightening enough.


Anonymous DoThis4ALiving said...

#7 is partially wrong. The census, by design, measures households. Therefore people in the military and in prison are not counted. This is not trickery and the census doesn't hide it; this is just how it works. So the 84 percent graduate census figure excludes people in jail who are disproportionately dropouts

8:35 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

You're right: thank you very much for calling this to my attention. I accidentally confused the numbers in point 4 and point 7. I'm feeling a little ill at the moment, so check out my new post for a more full explanation, but the number of those 25 and higher, including the prison and military, etc, as of 2000, would be about 80.4%, rather than 84%.

10:03 AM  
Blogger MichiganAdmissionsRep said...

I work in college admissions and it is amazing how many people contact us to get their GED. I think it is great that people want to get their GED's so I put up a site with information on how to get you ged: www.howtogetyourged.org

There is a link there to verify schools to make sure they offer legitimate GED's. We have had people that were con'd by unethical schools to spend up to $300 for a GED they could get in 10 days or less. People need to be aware. There are study guides, test tips, and contact information on the site for various GED test centers. Hope this helps everyone.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anyone find stats on rate/percentage of high school dropouts that make it to Grad school (either MA or PhD level)??? No body seems to be tracking this information...have tried various sites with drop out statistics, but none seem to have any info. on those that make it to grad school.
Any ideas? Thanks

12:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anyone find stats on rate/percentage of high school dropouts that make it to Grad school (either MA or PhD level)??? No body seems to be tracking this information...have tried various sites with drop out statistics, but none seem to have any info. on those that make it to grad school.
Any ideas? Thanks

12:35 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

no, we haven't seen those numbers either. It's a difficult thing to track.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

The closest answer I've seen is the November 2004 report by the National Center for Education Statistics: of those who were in 8th grade in 1988, and subsequently dropped out, "Fifteen percent of students who had not earned a high school diploma or alternative credential as of 2000 nevertheless reported having attended a postsecondary institution, and of those students, 9 percent reported first enrolling in a 4-year institution, 38 percent
in a public 2-year institution, and 54 percent in some other type of institution. Among dropouts who had some postsecondary experience, 27 percent reported earning a certificate or license and 9 percent reported obtaining an associate’s degree or higher by spring 2000."

That's a fairly discreet dataset and data point, but it's something.

The NCES may have more data as well.

1:26 PM  

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