High School Crisis: 3 in 10 Drop Out

Published January 1, 2003

More than three of every 10 U.S. students drop out of high school, thereby lessening their chances of becoming productive, economically successful citizens.

For blacks and Hispanics, the situation is even worse: Almost half do not complete high school. The national graduation rates were 55 percent for African-American students, 53 percent for Hispanics, and 57 percent for Native Americans. The highest graduation rates were 79 percent for Asians and 76 percent for whites.

Those are the key findings of the second annual report, “Public School Graduation Rates in the United States,” by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, an independent think tank. Senior Fellow Jay Greene, a prominent school choice researcher, and Marcus Winter coauthored the study, which reports on the Class of 2000.

The Manhattan analysis threw into question the soundness of government reporting of graduation and dropout rates. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an arm of the federal Department of Education, found a high school completion rate of 86.5 percent for the Class of 2000. By contrast, the Manhattan study concluded the national graduation rate was just 69 percent.

Much of the difference results from the NCES practice of counting as high school graduates the recipients of high school equivalence certificates, such as the GED. The Manhattan researchers counted only recipients of regular diplomas. The person who acquires a GED cannot properly be credited to the ledger of a particular high school, they note. Moreover, some respected researchers question the worth of a GED.

A second reason the government’s graduation numbers may be inflated is that the NCES depends on states correctly self-reporting their dropouts. But many states do not even attempt to track what happens to individual students, and some apply definitions guaranteed to minimize dropout numbers. For instance, Washington State reports as dropouts only those students who have filled out official dropout paperwork. Others who left school without completing the forms are classified as “unknowns,” of whom there are many.

On a federal district/state-by-state basis, Manhattan placed Florida public schools in the cellar with an overall graduation rate of 55 percent, followed closely by Georgia (56 percent), the District of Columbia (58 percent), and Arizona and South Carolina (each 59 percent). New Jersey could boast of the highest overall graduation rate at 87 percent, followed by North Dakota and Utah (each 86 percent), and Iowa (85 percent).

Black-White Gap

Disparities between majority and minority graduation rates were among the most disturbing findings, according to Greene and Winters. For instance, although Wisconsin had an overall graduation rate of 81 percent, it had the lowest graduation rate for African-Americans (41 percent). And Nebraska, which had the fifth best overall graduation rate, was in the lower third for African-American graduations and dead last in graduation rate for Native Americans at 40 percent. Some other highs and lows:

  • Highest rate of graduation for black students: 74 percent in West Virginia.
  • Lowest graduation rate for Hispanics: 23 percent in Mississippi. Highest: 73 percent in Louisiana.
  • Highest graduation rate for Native American students: 86 percent in Alabama.
  • Lowest rate of graduation for Asian public school students: 66 percent in Rhode Island. Highest: 95 percent in Illinois.
  • Lowest graduation rate for white students: Florida at 60 percent. Highest: 89 percent in North Dakota.

The results caused a bit of a stir in Florida, which in 1998-99 switched to a system of tracking individual students through high school rather than comparing a raw number of graduates against ninth-grade enrollment four years earlier. Tracking is considered to yield more precise results. In order to obtain state-by-state comparisons, the Manhattan team compared federal data on the size of freshman classes in each state–adjusted for population shifts and transfers–with diploma numbers four years later. A spokesman for the Florida Board of Education asserted, “We don’t do estimates, we do calculations, and it’s a world of difference.”

Even so, the state’s official graduation rate of 62.3 percent was just 7.3 percentage points higher than the Manhattan figure. The state counts GED recipients as graduates, while the think tank did not.

“When you add the GED in there, it tends to make the problem look less critical in people’s eyes,” Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, told the Orlando Sentinel. “Although there is value to getting a GED, I don’t want to downplay that, but it is not a high school diploma and it sends a different message to employers.”

State officials noted Florida’s graduation rates have been rising in recent years. Governor Jeb Bush added that comparisons of states using varied methods of calculation are problematic.

“If other states don’t have exit tests, and they have low standards and they have grade inflation and they are just passing kids along, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re adding much value,” said Bush.

Manhattan issued its first dropout study in 2001, but refined its methodology for the 2002 report. Winters said that with annual updates, the researchers will be able to document whether Governor Bush’s education reforms, which include vouchers for students in chronically failing public schools, are having an impact on Florida graduation rates. Manhattan maintains a research office in Davie, Florida to study the impact of that state’s school reform measures.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The 20-page report by Jay Greene and Marcus Winter from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, “Public School Graduation Rates in the United States,” is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #10901.