Report’s Good News: Many Who Drop Out Complete Education

By Lisa Jennings — September 27, 1989 7 min read

Washington--When Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos released the first annual federal dropout estimate this month, he said the good news was that fewer students were leaving school now than in previous decades.

But researchers who have reviewed the statistics pointed last week to what may be even better news: the report’s evidence that many dropouts are returning to complete their education, either at school or through some type of equivalency program.

Drawing on the Education Department’s “High School and Beyond” longitudinal study of 30,000 1980 sophomores, researchers found that about half of the 17.3 percent who dropped out had, by 1986, returned to complete their education. Another 12 percent were pursuing that goal.

“This is wonderful news,” said Nancy L. Peck, director of the Center for Dropout Prevention at the University of Miami. Only a few small studies have attempted before now to gauge return rates, she noted, and they have shown similar findings.

The report’s message for educators, Ms. Peck said, is that “schools should be working harder to recruit dropouts to return.”

But she and others cited the need for better and more inclusive data collection for the national dropout count. In particular, they said, the lack of statistics from the pre-high-school years may give a false picture of the dimensions of the problem.

“Kids are dropping out like flies in middle school,” said the Miami center’s director. “With all our optimism about a decreasing rate, we’re still not counting everybody.”

Getting a Statistical ‘Handle’

The federal report, released Sept. 14 by the National Center for Education Statistics, relied primarily on Census Bureau data. It estimated that, for the three-year period from 1985 to 1988, the average national dropout rate for students in grades 10 through 12 was 4.4 percent--a 2 percent decline from the rate a decade earlier. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1989.)

Officials who compiled the report responded to criticisms of its methodology by noting that it is the first step in an evolving process, one that will ultimately include specific state counts for dropouts. Future versions of the Congressionally mandated report, they noted, may include data from grades earlier than 10th grade.

The nces is currently training state officials to record the dropout data that will be collected for future annual reports. The collection method is to be pilot-tested in 27 states next year. (See Education Week, March 29, 1989.)

“There are still potential problems, and we’re still in the experimental phase,” said Mary J. Frase, a senior analyst with the nces and author of the dropout report. “But we’re giving it our best shot to see what happens.”

To Barbara S. Clements, director of the education-data-improvement project for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a group that has assisted in the drive toward a national dropout count, the encouraging signs in this first federal estimate were “very exciting news.”

“I’m pleased that we are finally getting a handle on some statistics we can work with,” Ms. Clements said. She added that “it’s important for us to see that we’re not as far away from our goal of 100 percent graduation rates as we thought.”

Much of the nces’s dropout-return data confirms estimates made previously by the General Educational Development Testing Service, said Douglas R. Whitney, its director.

The federal report found that, of those who dropped out in the cohort group and later returned to complete their education, one-third went back to school for a diploma; the other two-thirds earned a ged, or some other equivalency certificate. (The ged program accounts for 90 percent of equivalency degrees.)

Ged officials have estimated that the program picks up about 75 percent of school dropouts, Mr. Whitney said. But he noted that the program’s state offices are stepping up their efforts to keep students in school. In Pennsylvania, for example, a program in which ged graduates visit high schools across the state to encourage students not to drop out has been instituted.

Dropout-Recovery Program’

“The ged is really a ‘dropout recovery’ program,” Mr. Whitney said. “But we would love it if there were no more dropouts. Even if that were true, we’d still have another 51 million adults to reach who have never completed their education.”

Last year, the ged program provided more than 430,000 people with equivalency certificates--9 percent fewer than the previous year. More than 736,000 people took the test, a 3 percent decline after a fairly steady increase over the past 20 years.

Mr. Whitney attributed the decline to slightly revised recording methods. The test was also revamped in 1987, he noted, to reflect the trend toward stricter graduation standards. It now includes an essay section and other efforts to evaluate higher-order skills.

Most states prohibit dropouts younger than age 17 from taking the test, to prevent students from dropping out simply to take the alternative route, the program director said.

But Virginia has this year become the first state in which ged officials have relaxed age limits to allow students to take the test while still in school. The intent is to allow some students to make up lost class credits that might prevent them from graduating. Often, such students end up dropping out before they complete the requirements,Mr. Whitney said.

The apparent success of the ged and other equivalency programs in attracting dropouts raises an entirely different set of dropout questions, according to Ms. Frase of the nces

“We’re now faced with the question: What does it mean to get an equivalency credential? How will this compare with a regular diploma?” she said.

Mr. Whitney acknowledged that some studies have demonstrated a slightly lower performance level in college for ged graduates, as opposed to those with a regular high-school diploma. But he argued that not enough research has been done in this area.

It would be nearly impossible, he added, to control for differences in the life experiences of regular students and ged graduates, who tend to be older and to have held jobs.

The nces report notes that studies of military recruits have found that those with an alternative credential are less likely to complete their tour of duty than those with a diploma.

But the findings also indicate that literacy skills for ged recipients are generally higher than those of other dropouts, though lower than high-school graduates’.

Hispanic Rates Raise Concerns

The report’s findings suggest that, in the main, the same factors that keep students in school may also be associated with higher return rates.

Hispanic students, who were found in the study to have the highest dropout rate of any group, were also the least likely to return to school after dropping out.

The average dropout rate for Hispanics during the three-year period studied was 9.27 percent, more than double the 4.20 percent rate recorded for whites and substantially greater than the 5.78 percent rate for blacks.

Blacks and whites, moreover, were found to be returning to school at virtually the same rate--50 percent. The return rate for Hispanics was 35.5 percent.

Though many of those questioned last week said they had not had time to thoroughly analyze the data, many, like Ms. Clements of the ccsso, said the Hispanic dropout figures raised deep concerns.

The most frequently cited area of concern, however, was the lack of adequate data on what many researchers believe is a substantial, though underreported, dropout rate among middle-school students.

The nces’s Ms. Frase acknowledged that collecting data for that age group may prove difficult for future annual reports.

Most states, she said, have compulsory-attendance laws for students age 16 and younger. Thus, in reporting dropouts, schools are very reluctant to include younger students in that category. They will more often list such students as truant, if at all, she said.

Ms. Peck of the Center for Dropout Prevention noted that, because of the ged’s age limits, younger dropouts often end up without any options except the street and drugs.

Ms. Peck was one of several researchers who expressed some skepticism about the reliability of the nces study. Dropout statistics, she said, can be very misleading.

Robert Kominski, senior survey research advisor for the Census Bureau’s population division, from which much of the nces report’s data was drawn, acknowledged the difficulties that varying definitions of the term “dropout” have presented in collecting accurate dropout data. But he said that though there are “different estimates of dropouts out there, the numbers often come together.”

He predicted, however, that the pilot program in the states next year might result in more misleading information--mainly because states will have a vested interest in not reporting high rates, especially those for younger students.

Ms. Frase, however, disagreed. “States are very willing to do this, they want to have comparable national data,” she said.

As for the current national count, Ms. Peck expressed the sentiments of many when she voiced concern that the rates cited in the federal estimate might send a message to educators that “we can afford to be complacent.”

“No one is off the hook,” she said. “We still have enormous problems.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as Report’s Good News: Many Who Drop Out Complete Education