Commentary | Education

Lessons—Dropout Rate Is Climbing and Likely to Go Higher

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Dropout rate is climbing and likely to go higher

By  Richard Rothstein

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 out.

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 equivalency certificates.

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.

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