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Behind the Dropout Rate

by Daniel J. Losen, Mar 20, 2006
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Slightly more than half of all New York City high school students graduate on-time, according to the Preliminary Mayor's Management Report, the administration’s accounting of its success and failures. Even by the administration’s own counting, this represented a slight decline from the previous year. And a few days later, the State Education Department released its own graduation rate for the city and found it to be far worse -- 43.5 percent.

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The difference in the numbers points up the lack of good information about high school completion in New York. The drop out data is not accurate; the definitions are constantly changing. There must be at least three different kinds of students who are considered graduates. In some reports, they count people who receive GEDs as a graduate. In some reports, they don’t count them. In some reports, alternative certificates count. In some they don’t. On and on and on. It’s very confusing.

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The failure of so many students to earn a real diploma is a major issue in the state and the city, as well as across the county. And when we don’t see exactly what is going on, broken down by race, by ethnicity, by disabilities, by socioeconomic status, we don’t have the basis to judge whether what we are trying to do is effective. You need an accurate understanding of what the problems are before you can design appropriate solutions.

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The graduation rate crisis is not unique to New York or to New York City. But with regard to Latino and black students, New York is probably the worse state in the nation in terms of who is enrolled in ninth grade and who earns a real diploma on time four years later.

According to estimates of the national graduation rate data crunched by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., there’s a 50-50 prospect of graduating on time if you are black, Latino or native American. When you disaggregate this further by gender, you find that black, Latino and Native American males have less than a 50 percent likelihood of earning a real diploma. And by real diplomas, I don’t mean GEDs, and I don’t mean alternative certificates. We’re talking about a real diploma. That’s what you need to get into a college or have a meaningful career of gainful employment

WHO COUNTS AS A DROPOUT

There has been a state requirement that a student has to have been in high school for two years to count as a graduate or a dropout. So all the kids who drop out in ninth grade or tenth grade have been removed from the whole calculation. Now they are going to change this so students have to be in high school for only five months to be counted. But still all of the students who come into ninth grade and drop out right away are removed from the calculation. Basically, they disappear. The effect of that is to make the graduation rate look a lot higher than it really is.

Any student who is in the juvenile justice system is not counted as part of New York graduation rate. These are the students we should be most concerned about, but we don’t know what is happening to them.

WHO COUNTS AS A GRADUATE

In the reports on New York City, students who receive a GED are counted as graduates. The benefit of earning a GED, according to national research, is just a slight improvement over dropping out. On the other hand, there is a tremendous difference between earning a GED and earning a bona fide high school diploma.

Federal law requires that in calculating graduates for the purposes of No Child Left Behind, you look at students who graduate from secondary school with regular diplomas. The federal requirement does not count GED students, and the graduation rate is the percentage of students measured from the beginning of high school. Not counting them if they haven’t been there two years is just something that the State of New York has made up.

THE RACIAL DIVIDE

A study done by Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins looked at school district data and state data and found that approximately 84 percent of minority students in major cities in New York attended what he called “drop out factories.” A drop out factory is where less than 60 percent of ninth graders are still enrolled in 12th grade – regardless of whether they get a diploma. If all of the ninth graders showed up in 12th grade, the schools would fall under their weight. That’s how bad a situation we have.

In real numbers –- I took this off the state web site -- there are 46,298 students enrolled in grade 12 this year. That’s only 49 percent of the 93,775 ninth graders who were enrolled in 2002-03. And this is actually a 10 percent improvement from previous years.

When you disaggregate race and gender for the class of 2001 in the State of New York 28.6 percent of Latino male and just under 30 percent of black males who started ninth grade graduate with a real diploma four years later. The goal in the state of New York is 55 percent. That’s the goal. They’re shooting for a 55 percent graduation rate. It’s just outrageous.

New York City is not the worst city in the state. In Syracuse, just over a quarter of all students who start ninth grade graduate with a diploma on time.

But in New York City for the class of 2001, 32 percent of blacks and just over 30 percent of Latino students graduate with a diploma on time. The city’s official report gives an inflated rate. It states that for blacks and Hispanics, the rates are around 41 percent in terms of who graduates on time. And, it says, if you go five, years, six years seven years out, these rates improve. But the city does not tell you that probably most of those are not real diplomas, certainly not Regents diplomas.

This misinformation is devastating. How can we know if we are doing better if we do not get an accurate reading of where the problems lie? It also affects where resources are allocated. We are not going to spend enough if our focus on the problem isn’t sharp, and we can’t see what’s really going on.

ASSESSING ALTERNATIVE PROGRAMS

This also concerns one of the solutions you hear a lot about -- alternative schools. Some of the alternative schools are fantastic, filled with dedicated educators who do wonderful things for kids who are at risk and need these programs. But there also are alternative schools where kids are being warehoused, where they are being enrolled in GED programs, where we don’t know if they’re staying in school or dropping out. These students are not getting the kind of education they need to get a real diploma.

In designing and investing in alternative programs it is important to have data so we can know who is going and can then evaluate whether these programs are effective or not. If they are warehousing kids and simply making the graduation rates look better, everyone can pat themselves on the back while the kids wind up in prison.

SPECIAL ED STUDENTS

For kids with disabilities, the situation is even worse. According to a report issued by Advocates for Children in June 2005 called “Leaving Schools Empty-handed,” only 11.84 percent of students who receive special education leave school with a Regents or local diploma. Only four percent of the kids with emotional disturbance— where blacks student are disproportionately represented – wind up with a real diploma. Less than 1 percent of students in special education who end up in one of the GED programs actually earn a GED. There are so-called IEP (for individual education plan) diplomas drawn up specifically for special education students. Nobody feels a special education diploma is even roughly equivalent to a Regents diploma. But students who receive them are reported as having graduated.

When we try to evaluate our policies, we weigh whether or not we need more prisons, more money invested in juvenile justice and more police in our high schools or whether we need to train teachers better and invest in a higher quality of special education and in proven effective alternative schools. If, as policy makers, we don’t have accurate data, we are not going to be able to make those decisions. And eventually the public will pay the cost through increased crime and welfare costs and a lack of tax dollars from income that doesn’t get generated because there is no gainful employment for people who get a GED.

Daniel J. Losen is senior education law and policy associate with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard Law School.


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