The effort to boost standards in public schools enjoys broad bipartisan support, a fact that the recent nomination hearings for Rod Paige as Education secretary underscored. But amid the enthusiasm over progress toward that goal, some education reformers are starting to promote a largely neglected part of that agenda: students who never make it to graduation day.
Most estimates in the past decade indicated the completion rate has run at about 86 percent, close to the 90 percent goal set by the government in 1988.
But the problem is more serious than many previously thought, according to a new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Between just 70 and 75 percent of students graduate from US schools, the study says. "We are way off in understanding our dropout problem," says Gary Orfield, co-director of The Harvard Civil Rights Project.
Part of the discrepancy stems from poor records. Some students who drop out are marked as transfers or their record is simply lost, confounding dropout estimates.
The revised outlook also is rooted in different definitions of what it means to finish high school. Estimates fail to distinguish between those who receive a GED, or General Equivalency Diploma, and a traditional diploma.
The report, commissioned by The Harvard Civil Rights Project and Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group that focuses on accountability issues, shows that the number of young people opting for GEDs more than doubled between 1993 and 1998. Most experts are highly skeptical that the GED can carry its recipients as far as a high school diploma.
The need for reliable dropout rates for states and districts is heightened by increased attention to testing and accountability. Without knowing exactly who is making it to the tests, it is hard to fairly assess states' progress in providing a satisfactory education for all students.