Any which way you slice it, the graduation rate among American high school students is just not cutting it, even given the latest report that claims higher rates than what had been reported.
Two separate reports recently released give varied graduation figures: One claims only half of minority students ever make it out of school with a diploma, which has been reported before, while another one says slightly more than seven in 10 minorities get diplomas.
Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends, released by Economic Policy Institute, claims overall high school graduation with a regular diploma is between 80 percent and 83 percent, with the best data-that from National Education Longitudinal Study-showing an 82 percent rate. Black student graduation rates with a regular diploma hover around 69 percent to 75 percent and Hispanic rates range between 61 percent and 74 percent.
"We want to reiterate that to say 25 percent of minority students don't complete high school is enough to be concerned about," Lawrence Mishel, president of Economic Policy Institute, said during a teleconference upon release of the report. "However, we believe that facts matter."
"The way the situation has been characterized ... that we have a dropout crisis implies an across-the-board indictment of public schools," adds Mishel. "We do have some serious challenges in having kids graduate, but I'm not sure it's across the board."
The problem lies more among minority, urban and low-income students, where grad rates can be "horrifyingly low," Mishel says.
The EPI report's numbers come from household surveys conducted by the Census Bureau in 2000; Current Population Survey, which is sent monthly to 60,000 households and released by U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics; and longitudinal tracking of students from the graduating class of 1992. NELS:88, which means the study started with about 25,000 eighth graders in the spring of 1988, is the "gold standard of data" on high school completion because it tracks individual students through high school and matches that against school transcripts, the report states. That data is from a February 2006 report, The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College, from the U.S. Department of Education.
Mishel says even though the NELS study is 14 years old, there is a claim that graduation rates have not changed much since then. He disagrees. "It's definitely grown for Hispanics and it's up among blacks, though marginally" based on analyses of CPS over time, he says. Mishel adds that high school completion has grown over the past four decades and the black-white gap has shrunk "significantly."
However, Leaving Boys Behind: Public High School Graduation Rates, released by Center for Civic Innovation at The Manhattan Institute, and co-authored by Jay P. Greene, claims an overall graduation rate for the class of 2003 as 70 percent, and only 55 percent for black students and 53 percent for Hispanic students, by using enrollment and diploma counts from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data, or CCD.
It's become a tit-for-tat debate in what system is most accurate.
Russell Rumberger, an expert in the subject and professor of education at Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC at Santa Barbara, said during the EPI teleconference that such "debate" is healthy to make data better. He adds that "everyone agrees" that the best source is longitudinal data, which tracks students over time. But it's timely and costly.
"We are not going to settle these differences in the estimates until we have longitudinal studies that follow the same students to graduation," adds Paul Barton, senior associate at the Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center and who was among the speakers during the EPI teleconference.
Reg Weaver, president of National Education Association, says the EPI report is hopeful but not enough as lawmakers consider the "biggest education spending cuts" in U.S. history. "Another public school myth has been busted," Weaver says about the EPI study. "While this is positive news, we can still do better. Whether the data shows a gap of 70 percent or 7 percent, black and Hispanic children are not graduating high school at the rate of white students. Little progress has been made in the last 10 years to narrow the gap because lawmakers are only paying lip service to education."
The EPI report notes that using enrollment data, as Greene's report does, may understate the graduation rate in part because considering how many entering ninth graders complete high school, the calculations fail to compensate for ninth graders that are held back a year or two, called the ninth-grade bulge. And since the ninth-grade bulge is so large among minorities, the bias in calculating graduation rates is far greater, the report states.
Arkansas Gov. Michael Huckabee, outgoing chairman of the National Governors Association and chairman of the Education Commission of the States, says as noted by the EPI report, he's encouraged by "advances we're seeing in closing the gap" between minority and majority students. "With the efforts of committed educators we're making improvements in all academic areas for minorities at the high school level," he adds.
As for a standardized graduation reporting policy, a big issue for the NGA, Huckabee says that all 50 governors of the NGA have signed on to adopt a common definition for the graduation rate. "Having a standardized graduation rate will allow all states to make equal comparisons and will add validity to the data as it's presented to the public," Huckabee says.
In NGA's 2005 report, Graduation Counts: A Report on the National Governors Association Task Force on State High School Graduation Data, the task force recommends that state leaders: adopt a specific formula to compute a four-year, adjusted cohort graduation rate; build the state's data system and capacity; adopt complementary indicators to provide richer context and understanding about outcomes for students; stress to the public the need for good graduation and dropout rate data; and collaborate with K-12, higher education, business and community organization leaders.
Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.