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The Story Behind the Statistics

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Behind this year's forecast of record-breaking school enrollment are some statistical quirks that have even veteran education-watchers scratching their heads.

Chief among them is the fact that the total number of children ages 5 to 17, the range that demographers traditionally consider school-age, is actually expected to be smaller this year than when enrollment hit its previous peak 25 years ago.

This year, that traditional school-age group is expected to be slightly less than 50 million, compared with 52.6 million in 1971, said Gregory Spencer, the chief of the population-projections branch of the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

So why this year's record enrollment?

"You have a bunch of little contributors," said Wendy Bruno, the bureau's education specialist. "Nothing's going to explain the whole thing."

Schools Extend Reach

Among the factors are:

  • An increase in the number of children in kindergarten. In 1971, fewer than 3.3 million 5-year-olds were in kindergarten, compared with nearly 3.9 million in 1994, Ms. Bruno said.
  • Improvement in the dropout rate. In 1993, 12.7 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 were dropouts, down from 17 percent in 1971.
  • An increase in the number of students beyond the 5-to-17 age bracket who are showing up on school rosters.

Although the U.S. Department of Education includes only a relatively small number of preschoolers in its count--measuring only those in public and private schools that offer at least some primary grades--the number is thought to be higher than it was 25 years ago.

Similarly, a greater proportion of 18-year-olds are still on high school rosters--26.9 percent in 1993, compared with 17.8 percent in 1971.

Forecasters Surprised

Because of these factors, the department's National Center for Education Statistics predicts that total public and private enrollment will climb to 51.7 million this school year, exceeding the previous high by about 400,000 students.

Of that total, 45.9 million students are expected to attend public schools, with 5.8 million in private institutions.

Those projections are considerably higher than those of five years ago. At that time, demographers predicted that public school enrollment would not climb to 44 million until 1999. Now, they say it hit that level in 1994--five years ahead of schedule.

That surprise has led to complaints that the imperfect projections have made it harder for educators to cope with this decade's enrollment surge.

"The barometers that were there didn't work for us," said Nelson Canton, a spokesman for the National Education Association. "This would not be a problem if we'd been ready, but it surprised people."

In retrospect, demographers say a key reason for the fast growth was the unexpected trend among baby boomers toward later marriage and delayed child-bearing. While birthrates for virtually all age groups have been rising in the past decade, they have climbed more quickly for women in their 30s, explained Thomas D. Snyder, an NCES demographer.

Such changing and unforeseen circumstances make department estimates less accurate the further in the future they go, education officials say.

"It's like trying to predict exactly when the stock market is going to go up or down," Mr. Snyder said. "That's very hard to do."

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