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Dropout Rate Has Declined, E.D. Reports

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Washington--A study released last week by the Education Department concludes that, despite popular impressions to the contrary, the national dropout rate is declining--and the disparity between black and white dropout rates is narrowing.

"While the current attention to the dropout issue may have conveyed the impression that the dropout rate is very high and has been increasing, national data do not confirm that picture," the report states. ''In fact, while there was an increase in the annual dropout rate between 1968 and 1978, since then the rate has been declining."

The study by the National Center for Education Statistics is the first federal attempt to measure how many students fail to complete their education.

It was also the first to be submitted to the Congress under a provision included in the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Amendments of 1988. That measure requires the department to submit annual dropout counts on the second Tuesday after Labor Day.

Based on data from the Census Bureau and nces's "High School and Beyond" longitudinal survey, the study found that, on average, 4.4 percent of students in grades 10-12 dropped out of school annually between 1985 and 1988. The decrease was about 2 percent from 1978.

The 1985-1988 figures were higher for minorities and older students, with blacks dropping out at a rate of 5.78 percent, Hispanics at 9.27 percent, and whites, 4.20 percent.

"While the report shows some progress," said Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, "I find much in it alarming. The nation cannot rest any easier based upon our findings."

Despite the higher rates for minorities, whites still accounted for 66 percent of all dropouts. Blacks accounted for about 20 percent, and Hispanics about 16 percent.

Mr. Cavazos pointed to the narrowing gap between black and white dropout rates as a "glimmer of hope" in the report. In 1968, the rates for black and white students in the 16-to-24-year-old age group differed by 16 percentage points. By 1988, the black dropout rate was only 2 percentage points behind the white rate.

Among the report's other findings:

The dropout problem is particularly pressing among Hispanics, and their rate is not declining. In addition, nearly one-third of Hispanic dropouts have completed no more than six years of school.

Dropout rates for blacks and whites are similar when individual and family backgrounds are taken into account. The rates for blacks and whites living in cities are comparable, for example, as are those for the two groups in suburbs.

The study also shows that dropping out is not irreversible. Among the sample of high-school sophomores studied over time, 17 percent had not graduated by 1982. But 46 percent had completed school by 1986.--lj

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