The one essential fact that emerges from this collection of essays by scholars with Harvard’s Civil Rights Project is that the high school dropout rate is much worse than most people suspect. One assessment tool, developed by the nonprofit Urban Institute, is the Cumulative Promotion Index, which calculates the rates at which those entering 9th grade actually graduate. According to the CPI, the United States has an overall graduation rate of 68 percent; it’s only about 50 percent for Latinos and African Americans, however.
These figures are stunning given that even the lowest-performing urban schools rarely report an official dropout rate of more than 10 percent. Some of this underreporting is due to sheer chicanery, and some is due to anachronistic reporting methods, such as calculating the number of upperclassmen—as opposed to 9th graders—who eventually receive diplomas.
So what happens to students who don’t graduate? No one seems to know for sure, though it’s clear that most who disappear from school do so between 9th and 10th grades. The authors offer familiar suggestions for stemming dropout trends—smaller class sizes, creating schools within schools so that all students feel part of a community. But in light of the intractable data presented here, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about any short-term turnaround.