Sunday, August 21, 2005

About 1.3 million students nationwide drop out of school between eighth and 12th grades each year. They’re frustrated because they can’t read well enough to keep up, bored by their courses and teachers or just unmotivated to stay in school.

The implications for the nation’s economic vitality are “far-reaching and devastating,” according to a Harvard University report. “High school dropouts are far more likely to be unemployed, in prison and living in poverty.”

The same verdict is reached in other recent studies by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, N.J., and the Manhattan Institute of New York City.

“This is a story of losing ground,” researcher Paul E. Barton says in the ETS report.

Researcher Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute, who has studied the dropout issue for several decades, says schools peaked nationally in 1969 with a 77 percent graduation rate and have slipped each year for the past 30 years.

“The trend is the same from year to year,” Mr. Greene says.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says the Manhattan Institute study also found that most students who do receive high school diplomas are unprepared to do college-level work.

“The report shows that two-thirds of our nation’s students leave high school unprepared to even apply to a four-year college. That is a travesty,” Mrs. Spellings says.

At least half of prison inmates throughout the country are high school dropouts, Mr. Greene notes.

In the District, the number of dropouts grew 12 percentage points from 1990 to 2000, with fewer than half of ninth-graders making it to graduation.

Maryland managed to increase its graduation rate by 3.5 percentage points during those 10 years, with 80 percent of students graduating in 2000. In Virginia, about 71 percent graduated annually in the past decade.

The Harvard Civil Rights Project study, led by Gary Orfield, shows a graduation rate of 50 percent for blacks and 53 percent for Hispanics, compared with 75 percent for whites.

The report, titled “Losing Our Future,” concludes: “The extremely low graduation rates of black, Latino and Native American males cry out for immediate action informed by research.”

Ross Wiener, policy director for the Education Trust in the District, says the reliability of the Manhattan and Harvard studies “is bolstered by how similar their numbers are.”

One criticism of the Manhattan Institute report is that it did not look separately at the dropout rate of boys and girls.

“This is, in my judgment, a very important piece of the problem to get a handle on. I suspect the vast majority [of dropouts] are boys,” says Sandra Stotsky of Northeastern University, formerly Massachusetts’ senior associate commissioner of education for standards, curriculum and teacher preparation.

In fact, the dropout rate for minority boys is more than 50 percent in many large urban areas, according to the Harvard report.

“I agree that deficiency in reading and arithmetic are major problems,” Mrs. Stotsky says. “Kids, mainly boys, are flooding into high school with poor skills. …

“Giving kids who can’t read, write or do math a much more rigorous [high school] curriculum is unlikely to make them stay in school. … A much harder curriculum doesn’t improve poor reading skills and may cause them to drop out faster.”

Blame middle schools?

Cheri Pierson Yecke, a former middle-school teacher, wrote a book about mediocrity in middle schools called “The War Against Excellence.” In it, she points to reduced school-dropout rates in Singapore in the 1980s and ‘90s when that country implemented higher academic standards and exit exams at each grade level.

Mrs. Yecke, who also served as state education chief in Virginia and Minnesota, writes that anti-testing critics had warned, incorrectly, that more rigorous academic standards and courses would produce massive dropout rates among poor students who wouldn’t be able to keep up.

“Secondary dropout rates in Singapore were 19 percent in 1980,” Mrs. Yecke writes. “But after the implementation of a series of reforms, including increasing the rigor of the curriculum, ratcheting up the difficulty of national exit exams and implementing mandatory ability grouping, the dropout rate plummeted to 3 percent.”

In the United States, elimination of ability grouping in the name of egalitarianism in the 1980s “caused a dumbing-down of the curriculum and lowered expectations for high-ability students,” Mrs. Yecke argues.

Henry L. Johnson, Mississippi’s state superintendent of education, agrees.

“Dropping out starts in early grades. It’s usually highly correlated with poor reading skills,” Mr. Johnson says.

“One of the things that you hear [from students] is that the high school experience is boring and not relevant,” he says. “The curriculum experience has to be rigorous and relevant for students. With both pieces in place, students are more likely to be engaged.”

Lance Izumi, director of education studies for the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco, cites a success story at the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif.

The charter school is the highest-ranked public middle school in Oakland, Mr. Izumi says. Students are all minority — Indian, black, Hispanic, Asian — and almost all are low-income.

“Yet because of the high expectations, rigorous standards-based academics and no-nonsense discipline policy, the students do extremely well on the state tests and the school has a nearly 100 percent attendance rate,” Mr. Izumi says.

“When these students leave American Indian and go to high school, in contrast to their less academically prepared peers, it is much less likely that they will drop out,” he says.

False reporting

The Harvard report strongly criticizes inaccurate reporting by local school districts and states, which are required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act to disclose school-dropout rates.

“Because of misleading and inaccurate reporting of dropout and graduation rates, the public remains largely unaware of this educational and civil rights crisis,” the report says.

The ETS report shows that 25 states underestimated high school completion rates from 1990 to 2000, and 25 states actually had higher graduation rates than were predicted.

Federal regulations “allow schools, districts and states to all but eliminate graduation-rate accountability for minority subgroups,” the report says. “By doing so, department officials have rendered these accountability measures virtually meaningless.”

In Texas, a 2003 state audit of records at 16 middle and high schools in the Houston Independent School District showed that more than half of the students who should have been reported as dropouts in the 2000-01 school year were not.

Also, the Texas tracking system excludes enrollees in the General Educational Development (GED) program from graduation-rate calculations, thus treating them as if they never enrolled in high school. This inflated the state’s diploma-completion rate, according to the Harvard study.

Chris Patterson, research director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation in San Antonio, says there are huge discrepancies in reported dropout rates by Texas school districts. The state’s reported average dropout rate in 2003 was 4.5 percent.

San Antonio reported a 2003 dropout rate of 8.9 percent. But the city’s class of 2003 entering ninth grade was 791 students. That number fell to 473 students by the 12th grade, a 40 percent dropout rate.

‘Dropout factories’

A study of Chicago schools showed similar problems with reporting dropouts. The Illinois state report card said 71 percent of Chicago students who entered as freshmen in 2000 received diplomas in 2004.

But the actual graduation rate was 54 percent, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research concluded. At some high schools, as few as 20 percent of entering freshmen made it to graduation. Throughout the city, dropouts among black males topped 55 percent, with Hispanics at more than 45 percent.

In California, the state reported a graduation rate of 87 percent in 2003 — a soaring rise from 70 percent in 2002 — after new federal regulations allowed the state to change its formula and exclude gender and racial breakdowns from calculations.

According to the Harvard study, California’s overall graduation rate was actually 16 points lower, at 71 percent. The Manhattan study puts California’s rate at 67 percent.

Jack O’Connell, California’s state superintendent of public instruction, agreed with the San Francisco Chronicle that the state’s method for calculating its graduation rate had inflated numbers and suppressed the extent of the dropout problem.

The Harvard study says that many California schools are simply “dropout factories,” with graduation rates of 60 percent or less.

Even with California’s questioned estimate of 66,657 dropouts from grades seven to 12 in the 2002-03 school year, the state would lose $14 billion in wages in one year and have to spend $73 million more to support an additional 1,225 prison inmates, University of California, Santa Barbara researcher Russell Rumberger told the Chronicle.

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