Conflicting Views On Dropout Rate

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By Amy Bracken

Two recently released reports offer conflicting views on U.S. education. The first, "Do You Know... The Good News About American Education?," sponsored by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) and the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), expresses optimism about the state of education. The second, conducted by the congressionally created National Education Goals Panel (NEGP), is more pessimistic.

For example, the Good News report announces an increase in high school completion rates, while the Goals report announces a leveling off. The former report shows a decrease in the percentage of 16- to- 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not completed high school or attained a GED (from 15 percent in 1972 to 11 percent in 1997). The latter report shows that high school completion rates improved in only four states in the 1990s, with no discernible change reflected at the national level.

One primary reason for this disparity: the CEP/AYPF findings are based on changes from 1972 to 1983 and from 1983 to 1997, whereas the NEGP results are based solely on the 1990s.

So what's the truth? Jay Spink, director of the National Dropout Prevention Center in Clemson, S.C., agreed with the trends cited in both studies but expressed skepticism about the numbers. "There are all kinds of weird numbers out there," said Spink. "They're all suspect. Every single one of them."

Spink cautions that states tend to "drastically" underrepresent the number of dropouts. Numbers are particularly difficult to track in states with high turnover or migration, leaving room for schools, school districts and states to alter numbers to suit themselves.

Besides the dropout issue, the CEP/AYPF report shows improvements in five areas of American education: school participation and curriculum, student achievement, educational climate, teachers and higher education. But according to NEGP, U.S. education failed to meet any of its eight goals for 2000: readiness to learn; school completion; student achievement and citizenship; teacher education and professional development; math and science; adult literacy and lifelong learning; safe, disciplined and alcohol- and drug-free schools; and parental participation.

One reason for the disparities (aside from different time periods studied) is that the reports have distinctly different purposes and sources. The NEGP, created by Congress in 1990, is a bipartisan body of federal and state officials charged with monitoring state and national progress in light of the organization's Goals 2000 effort. Six of the eight goals were announced by President Bush in 1989.

The CEP, by contrast, calls itself a "national, independent advocate for public education and more effective public schools." Its report is intended to reveal good news about American education in order to counterbalance years of criticism. It concludes that a decade of public school reform has paid off.