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Cooking the Books on Dropout Rates

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"Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?" --Samuel Beckett, "Waiting for Godot"

Several years ago, Harold Hodgkinson, the eminent education demographer, listed in a magazine article the states with the highest dropout rates. Louisiana, where we live and teach, was shown to have a dropout rate of 39.9 percent, the second-highest rate in the country. Last year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked the states based on the percentage of students who don't graduate on time. Louisiana was ranked dead last. An astonishing 44 percent of Louisiana students, the rankings suggest, do not graduate from high school with their age group.

But the Louisiana Department of Education also calculates dropout rates, based on annual reports from parish school districts. According to the department, only 3.66 percent of students in grades 7-12 dropped out of school in 1991-92. The department's much lower dropout rate consists of the percentage of Louisiana public school students who drop out of grades 7 through 12 in any given year as reported by local districts.

Of course dropout rates vary depending on how they are defined. But there comes a point when a definition becomes deceptive, and we have reached that point in Louisiana. In East Baton Rouge Parish, for example, the 51st-largest school district in the nation, 40 percent of the students who were in 9th grade in 1990 did not graduate in 1993. The district reported a dropout rate of only 2.6 percent. Orleans Parish, the nation's 28th-largest district, lost more than half of its 9th graders before graduation and reported a dropout rate of 3.9 percent. In St. John the Baptist Parish, an astonishing 59.1 percent of a cohort of 9th graders failed to graduate with their class in 1993, the second-highest loss of any Louisiana parish. Its reported dropout rate? Only 1.5 percent, among the lowest in the state.

But few Louisiana districts can match the published dropout rate of Lafayette Parish, a district of 29,000 students, where 37 percent of the 1990 students in 9th grade failed to graduate on time. Lafayette reported that only 22 students dropped out of grades 7 through 12 in 1993, and it calculated its dropout rate to be two-tenths of 1 percent.

As the Louisiana education department has pointed out, not every child who departs a school district between 9th and 12th grade is a dropout. Some students transfer to other districts, some enter private schools, and some enroll in adult-education classes in order to obtain a General Educational Development sic diploma. But in Louisiana, at least, these three alternative possibilities account for very few of the missing students.

According to a recent study, most Louisiana residents who enroll in G.E.D.-preparation classes are over 25 years old. Only 3 percent of these students are between the ages of 16 and 18. So it is apparent that very few of the state's departing teenagers substitute the G.E.D. for a high school diploma. Virtually all Louisiana dropouts who pursue the G.E.D. do it when they are older.

Moreover, very few of Louisiana's army of high school deserters enrolled in private schools. We examined private school enrollments for the three years prior to 1993 and generally found no spike in enrollment in grades 9 through 12. In fact, private schools gained enrollment between the 9th and 12th grades in only five of the state's 64 parishes. Some of the other 59 parishes had no private high schools. And in the remaining parishes where private high schools existed, private high school enrollment either held steady or declined.

It is true, of course, that some of the missing students from each district's 1990 cohort of 9th graders merely transferred to another Louisiana school district and are not dropouts. Nevertheless, more than 26,000 Louisiana students who were 9th graders in 1990 failed to graduate from any Louisiana high school in 1993--a 43.9 percent enrollment loss for the state as a whole.

We do not think very many of these missing students moved out of Louisiana. During the three years prior to the 1993 graduation date, Louisiana's population grew by an estimated 1.7 percent. Louisiana's student-attrition rate has been high for many years, and we discern no trends in U.S. Census data that suggest a significant, long-term migration of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds out of the state.

In sum, we believe that most of the Louisiana youths who failed to graduate on time in 1993 are truly dropouts. Thus, in Louisiana at least, any definition of dropout rates that masks the fact that high numbers of students fail to graduate with their classmates is misleading.

By calling attention to our state's high dropout rates, we are not saying this is solely a Louisiana problem. The percentage of students who fail to graduate on time is high all across the Southern rim of the United States; it exceeds 30 percent in Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Texas. As for other parts of the country, New York State's dropout rates are high, particularly in the state's eight largest cities; and, according to Donald Moore and Suzanne Davenport, in a group of inner-city Chicago schools, only 4 percent of a cohort of children both graduated on time and read at grade level.

Nor are we saying that Louisiana districts are the only communities to understate the magnitude of their dropout problems. In their book The Closing Door, Gary Orfield and Carole Ashkinaze wrote that the Atlanta public schools reported an annual dropout rate of 4.7 percent, while a working paper prepared in connection with the authors' study reported an attrition rate of 39 percent--eight times higher. And in Framing Dropouts, Michelle Fine wrote of New York City schools that manipulated their attendance figures to maintain artificially high enrollment levels.

In fact, Louisiana parishes' reported dropout rates illustrate what is true in many communities across the United States: The percentage of students dropping out of high school is much higher than is publicly acknowledged. For every American, a high school diploma is the barest minimum survival kit against a life of poverty. Indeed, as Richard Murnane and Frank Levy have pointed out, real income for high school graduates who don't go on to college has declined over the past 25 years. Young people who do not complete high school stand almost no chance of obtaining economic security. So it is critical from the standpoint of public policy that we have accurate information about the education status of American youths.

Our society would not tolerate this lack of accountability if the commodity being measured were money instead of children. If a bank lost 37 percent of its investment over four years, would it accept a report that its annual loss was .02 percent?

Clearly, the dropout rates reported by many Louisiana districts are inadequate to inform educators and the public about the status of public education in the state. And if these numbers are worthless, which some obviously are, what does that suggest about all the other calculations and reports that are being generated by school districts?

Too often, the education community has treated the condition of our schools as a public-relations problem to be managed rather than a human crisis that must be solved. And in this regard, it has been fairly successful. The public is largely unaware of how many children are failing to receive even the most basic education in many of our nation's schools.

But, in our inner cities and poor rural communities, where more than half the students drop out of school before graduation, and where many who graduate are unprepared for college or the workplace, it is not too much to say that public education is very near collapse. In these settings, the condition of American youths can be likened to a forest fire that consumes a portion of tomorrow's workforce and moral citizenry with every passing day. The education establishment--state education officials, college professors, school administrators, and union leaders--may lull themselves into believing that time is not critical, that school reform can be accomplished on a schedule that meets our convenience and does not threaten our personal interests. But if we do not recognize the problems of our children for the emergency that it is, eventually this fire will consume us all. Surely one step toward action is to tell the truth about the magnitude of the dropout problem.

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