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A brewing social and civil rights crisis that has been largely invisible to the public is finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves. Thanks to a relatively new focus by academics, advocates, journalists and policy makers on calculating a high school’s “on-time graduation” rates – rather than its far more easily manipulated “dropout” rates – educators and politicians are finding it increasingly difficult to avoid addressing the elephant in the school cafeteria. Our nation’s public schools are abandoning intolerably high numbers of students before they graduate from high school.

Nationally, only 68 percent of ninth grade students graduate in four years, according to a comprehensive study released this week by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute. By “graduation” the researchers mean on-time graduation with a regular diploma. The figures for Black, Hispanic and American Indians are even more disturbing: only 50 percent of all Black students, 51 percent of Native American students, and 53 percent of all Hispanic students graduated alongside their peers, compared with 75 percent for white students. For minority males, the rates dip below the 50 percent mark. In predominantly minority urban districts, these figures descend even lower still. In the New York City and Houston school districts, the graduation rates are 38 percent and 40 percent, respectively; and lower still for Oakland (30 percent), Atlanta (40 percent), Cleveland (30 percent) and Columbus (34 percent).

Recently, Congress took a first step in recognizing the severity of the dropout problem by including graduation rate accountability provisions under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Unfortunately, Secretary of Education Roderick Paige has rendered these provisions virtually meaningless. In a controversial decision, he issued regulations that permit graduation rates to be “bundled” together for accountability purposes in such a way as to obscure problem spots among minority subgroups. With only nine states disaggregating this data by race or socio-economic status for accountability purposes, hidden pockets of disturbingly low graduation rates in minority-dominated schools continue “below the radar.”

Moreover, the Department of Education also has approved 39 state plans that set a “soft” Adequate Yearly Progress [AYP] goal for graduation rates, meaning they can avoid sanctions simply by exhibiting even the smallest degree of improvement from one year to the next. For example, California sets a goal of 100 percent graduation and yet acknowledges AYP for “any improvement” — even for a tenth of a percentage point. Given current graduation rates for minority students in that state, under this system, California’s 100 percent goal could take over 500 years to achieve if the state disaggregated its graduation data and required progress by all major racial groups.

The lax enforcement of graduation rate accountability stands in stark contrast to the rigid enforcement of test score accountability under NCLB. The almost exclusive reliance upon test scores when determining AYP creates a perverse incentive for school officials to “push out” low performers. Under the current system, it is simply more cost-effective for officials to raise their school’s test profile by removing low performing students from their rosters than to invest in the resources and programs that might keep them in school. Not surprisingly, it is minority students who are disproportionately harmed by these practices.

The dropout/pushout syndrome is likely to grow worse unless the current exclusive emphasis on test-driven accountability structures in most states is balanced with more powerful incentives for schools to “hold onto” students through graduation. Paige has an opportunity under NCLB to issue strong regulations that will end dropout accounting abuses and promote accountability for improving graduation rates. While this alone will not solve the dropout crisis in this country, it will send a strong signal to schools that efforts to artificially inflate test scores by removing struggling students will no longer be tolerated. Leaving no child behind means moving all students, minority and non-minority alike, to a diploma. And beyond.

Christopher Edley, Jr. is a professor at Harvard Law School and the co-founder and co-director of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Johanna Wald is a senior development/policy analyst for The Civil Rights Project. Founded in 1997, the central mission of The Civil Rights Project is to help renew the civil rights movement by bridging the world of ideas and actions and by becoming a pre-eminent source of intellectual capital and a forum for building consensus within that movement.

Related Materials

Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis. Download the executive summary and report.

Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t?, A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001, by Christopher B. Swanson, Education Policy Center, The Urban Institute

Congressional Democrats wrote a letter to the Secretary Paige last month, expressing concern about the administration’s failure to fully implement the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act related to graduation rates. The secretary released a response to the letter this week. It failed to address the graduation rate issue. Links to both letters are provided below.

To see a letter from Democrats to Bush regarding failure to implement accountability provisions related to graduation rates, click here.

To see Paige response to Democrats letter which completely ignores graduation rate accountability issue, click here.

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