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Debate Over Dropouts Renewed as Scholars Issue Dueling Reports

By Debra Viadero — April 21, 2006 4 min read

Depending on which of a pair of new think-tank estimates you believe, the nation’s high schools are graduating only seven out of 10 of their students or as large a share as 82 percent.

The conflicting reports, issued last week by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute and by the New York City-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, continue a long-running debate over the best way to track high school graduation rates.

Read both of the reports mentioned in this story:

“Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends,” from the Economic Policy Institute; and

“Leaving Boys Behind: Public High School Graduation Rates,” from the Manhattan Institute.

Discontent with the perceived inaccuracy of traditional methods of counting dropouts has led the nation’s governors, federal officials, and experts to adopt newer approaches that essentially divide the number of diplomas awarded in a given year by the estimated number of 9th graders enrolled three years earlier.

Advocates of that strategy, including Manhattan Institute fellows Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, as well as Christopher B. Swanson, currently the director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, say it’s more accurate than relying on general-population surveys or schools’ self-reported rates.

The newer methods have been drawing attention because they yield lower graduation rates than those that states and districts have typically claimed. Nationwide, the new approaches find that as few as two out of three students, on average, leave high school with a regular diploma. And they suggest that only about half of African-American and Latino students graduate on time.

Getting to the Finish Line

A new study estimates that the high school completion rate for blacks has risen by about 11 percentage points since the late 1970s.

*Click image to see the full chart.

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SOURCE: Economic Policy Institute

In their April 20 report, though, President Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute and his co-author, Joydeep Roy, say those estimates are “substantially incorrect.” They conclude that, nationwide, 82 percent of high school students—and 75 percent of black students—graduate on time. And they say the overall rate is double what it was in 1960, despite having flattened in the past 10 years.

“It’s something very different to say that half of blacks don’t finish high school than to say three-fourths of them do,” Mr. Mishel told reporters last week. “This misstates how the world is.”

In interviews and in opinion essays, Mr. Greene called the EPI report “flat-out wrong.” He and Mr. Winters, his research colleague at the Manhattan Institute, released a report a day earlier that applies their methods to new federal data to paint what they say is a fuller picture of the dropout situation.

Gender Gap Detailed

Their data support the widespread belief, for instance, that girls graduate at higher rates than boys. The national graduation rate for girls is 72 percent, compared with 65 percent for boys, the Manhattan Institute study found. It pegged the overall graduation rate at 70 percent. The researchers also found that the gender gap is 4 to 7 percentage points larger among African-American and Hispanic students than it is for white students. The widest gap was found among black students: Fifty-nine percent of black female students earned a diploma on time, compared with 48 percent of males.

At issue in the debate are differences over which federal data set to trust. Mr. Greene and some other researchers, such as Mr. Swanson, rely on the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data, which contains figures states are required to report.

Mr. Roy said that data set does not adequately account for the “bulge” in 9th grade as higher-than-average numbers of students are held back a year. He and Mr. Mishel base their estimates on data from the U.S. Census Bureau as well as from the Education Department’s National Education Longitudinal Study, or NELS:88. The latter tracks a nationally representative sample of students who entered 8th grade in 1988.

But Mr. Greene, who is also an education professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, faulted the NELS data for relying on a sample of students from just one age group. He also criticized the Census Bureau surveys that Mr. Mishel uses for relying on self-reports by students and parents, and for undercounting marginalized population groups that are likely to contain high numbers of dropouts.

“The story is that every method and every source of data used has strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important to identify those weaknesses and rely on more than one source,” said Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mr. Rumberger, who served on a federal task force on reporting dropout and graduation rates, agrees with the EPI economists that longitudinal studies like NELS may more accurately gauge graduation rates. (“Panel Urges New System for H.S. Data,” Dec. 8, 2004.)

But others said Mr. Greene may get closer to the truth. “His estimates are flawed, but at least he’s in the ballpark,” said John Robert Warren, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Funding for the EPI report came in part from the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and three private foundations. The Manhattan Institute, which generally advocates market-oriented policies, did not cite specific funders for its new study.

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