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The story behind dropout rates

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The commencement speeches are done, the confetti has been swept up, the decorations stored away. But even as graduation 2003 fades into memory, an unanswered question continues to trouble the US education community: When it comes to high school graduation rates, should the nation be celebrating, or looking more deeply into some worrisome trends?

A recent study by the Child Trends DataBank in Washington offers interesting figures on the nation's high school dropout rates. Overall, US high school dropout rates have fallen, the study indicates.

In 2001, 11 percent of people aged 16 to 24 had dropped out of high school, compared with 15 percent in 1972. Graduation rates compiled by the federal government also show high school graduation has been steadily on the rise for decades. But broken down by race, the Child Trends figures tell a more nuanced story.

The numbers demonstrate that the dropout rate for black students has been cut almost in half over the past 20 years, having fallen to 11 percent in 2001, compared with 21 percent in 1972. But at the same time, the study also shows a stubborn trend for Hispanic student dropout rates. Although down from a peak of 34 percent in 1972, this rate remains extremely high, at 27 percent, in 2001.

On the surface, it would appear that black students are connecting to high school more firmly than in the past, while Hispanic students, for whatever reason, are not.

But it's essential to look more deeply into such numbers, experts say. Ironically, the figures on black students actually conceal a troubling deficit, some insist, while the news about Hispanic students is surprisingly positive.

"There absolutely was a fall in the high school dropout rate" of black students, confirms Bruce Western, professor of sociology at Princeton University in New Jersey. That's the good news. But the bad news follows quickly behind. "About half the fall in the dropout rate is due to the rise in imprisonment of young black males," he says.

Prison inmates generally are excluded in both graduation and dropout counts. At any point in time that practice can invalidate the accuracy of both figures, but the distortion is particularly dramatic at this point in time.

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