High School Dropout: A Silent Epidemic

Civil rights groups call for better tracking of educational progress

Underscoring the release of a landmark study on high school graduation rates, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans this week to have all states use the same criteria to track students’ achievements. It is a move civil rights groups say will help close the educational gap between minority and white students.

The study, conducted by America’s Promise Alliance and prepared by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, found that nearly one-third of high school students do not graduate. In urban areas where there are typically large concentrations of minorities, only 60.4% of students were likely to graduate from high school, compared to 74.9% of students in suburban areas.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, students from the classes of 2006 and 2007 who don’t graduate will cost the nation more than $329 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over their lifetimes.” The study was unique in that it used a national benchmark to compare graduation rates. Typically, states report such data applying different methods, making it difficult to compare results across the country.

“One reason that the high school dropout crisis is known as the ‘silent epidemic’ is that the problem is frequently masked or minimized by inconsistent and opaque data reporting systems,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings at a press conference. “In the coming weeks, I will take administrative steps to ensure that all states use the same formula to calculate how many students graduate from high school on time, and how many drop out.”

The Department of Education announcement comes a week after a coalition of civil rights organizations testified before Congress about the need for a standardized method to track student achievement. The Campaign for High School Equity, which includes the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, argued that data systems should track the progress of students by state, race, and ethnic group as part of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The problem with tracking educational progress has been caused by the wide variety of how states report information,” says Michael Wotorson, director of the Campaign for High School Equity. “You might look at Nebraska, Mississippi, and Georgia and they each may report a certain graduation rate but using different approaches and different calculation rates.”

Such disparities often camouflage the problem. For example, in her remarks, Spellings pointed out that in some districts, students are only counted as high school dropouts if they register as dropouts. Likewise, in other districts, if a student promises to get a general equivalency diploma (GED) at a future date, he or she is counted as a graduate.

“What’s critical is that we have the right information so a state isn’t reporting that they have a 79% graduation rate when in reality it’s closer to 60%,” says Wotorson. The action by the Department of Education is a good first step, Wotorson adds. Specific details as well as a time frame for Spellings’ plans have yet to be released.

According to the Campaign

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