U of Minnesota study finds that US high school dropout rate higher than thought

September 28, 2007

University of Minnesota sociologists have found that the U.S. high school dropout rate is considerably higher than most people think -- with one in four students not graduating -- and has not improved appreciably in recent decades. Their findings point to discrepancies in the two major data sources on which most governmental and non-governmental agencies base their findings.

The U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (CPS) is widely used by governmental and non-governmental sources -- from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to the White House -- to report high school dropout rates. The CPS paints a rosy picture, showing dropout rates at about 10 percent in recent years and declining some 40 percent over the past generation. On the other hand, measures of high school completion based on the National Center for Education Statistics' Common Core of Data survey (CCD) paint a darker picture, with high school completion rates holding steady at about 75 percent in recent decades.

University of Minnesota sociology professor John Robert Warren and graduate student Andrew Halpern-Manners found that whether the dropout rate is high or low -- and improving or not -- depends entirely on which data source observers base their estimates. From the more commonly-used CPS, people typically conclude that about 10 percent of young people drop out; from the CCD, people usually describe a dropout "crisis" with at least one in four students failing to graduate.

The data sources also differ with respect to how they count private high school graduates and GED recipients. However, after accounting for the differences, the researchers found that about half of the discrepancy still remained and is attributable to misreporting of high school enrollment and completion status by individuals who respond to the CPS surveys. The researchers conclude that reports using the CCD- -- which is based on administrative records, not individuals' responses to surveys -- tell the more accurate, complete story.

An article based on their findings, titled "Is the Glass Emptying or Filling Up: Reconciling Divergent Trends in High School Completion and Dropout," appears in the most recent issue of Educational Researcher.

University of Minnesota

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