The Real Dropout Rate—And Why Some Students Should Drop Out Of School

In the grand tradition of Ebenezer Scrooge, economist James J. Heckman, a Nobel Laureate and 2002 Statistician of the Year, says "Bah! Humbug!" to the happy-clappy statistics the federal government has been feeding us on a key omen of America's future: high school dropout rates.

In an important paper with the bland title of The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels, [PDF] Heckman of the U. of Chicago and co-author Paul A. LaFontaine of the American Bar Association report:

"The true high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the official rate issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics."

The Department of Education's NCES claims that the graduation rate has been rising since back in the late 1960s, when it stood at 80 percent. [Dropout Rates in the United States: 2005]

(Note: this implies, of course, that the dropout rate back then was 20 percent: 100 percent minus the graduation rate of 80 percent equals the dropout rate of 20 percent. Heckman and LaFontaine's study always reports the graduation rate, but I'm going to turn it around at times and look at the more arresting dropout rate.)

According to the feds, as cited by Heckman and LaFontaine:

"U.S. schools now graduate nearly 88 percent of students and black graduation rates have converged to those of non-Hispanic whites over the past four decades."

But in fact Heckman and LaFontaine's exhaustive study of the widest array of data sources consulted to date finds that the high school dropout rate isn't 12 percent, but about twice that. And the racial gaps have been steady since the early 1970s.

Moreover, although the high school dropout rate improved steadily through the middle of the 20th Century, falling from 75 percent in the early 1920s to 20 percent in the late 1960s, it has worsened, by up to one-fourth, since then.

This was not expected, to say the least. The high school graduation rate should still be going up—because dropping out is ever more of a personal disaster. H&L point out:

"The U.S. high school graduation rate has declined at a time when the returns to completing high school have greatly increased."

Dropping out of high school is a terrible way to start your life. For example, 78 percent of prisoners, but only 9 percent of new recruits allowed to enlist in the U.S. military, are high school dropouts. H&L add:

"… more than one-third of all black male high school dropouts age 20-35 were in prison on an average day in the late 1990s—a higher proportion than found in paid employment."

This means trouble for all of America. H&L sum up:

"To increase the skill levels of the future workforce, America needs to confront a large and growing dropout problem."

H&L's study finds:

"The decline in high school graduation is almost exclusively concentrated among young males. The overall male graduation rate fell 7 percentage points from the first to the last cohort, while the female rate fell by only 1 point ..."

And that's bad news because males cause most of the trouble in this world.

(The college graduation rate has been improving, reaching 24 percent for men and 36 percent for women born in 1980. But even this growth has been tailing off lately as the high school graduation slump feds through. H&L comment:

"The slowdown in the high school graduation rate accounts for a substantial portion of the recent slowdown in the growth of college educated workers in the U.S. workforce… This slowdown is not due to a decline in rates of college attendance among those who graduate high school.")

The high school dropout rate has improved a little since the passage of the No Child Left Behind act in 2001. But H&L are cynical:

"NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible… Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior."

"Strategic behavior" is a euphemism for skullduggery.

Why is the federal government's favored measure of high school graduation misleading? It's biased in large part by counting as graduates those dropouts who subsequently pass the GED test (the "General Educational Development" exam, often referred to, incorrectly, as the "Graduation Equivalency Degree".) Heckman's earlier research shows, however, that the GED counts for less in the eyes of potential employers than does a genuine high school degree:

"Although GED recipients have the same measured academic ability as high school graduates who do not attend college, they have the economic and social outcomes of otherwise similar dropouts without certification."

Dropouts who can pass the GED test are generally smarter than dropouts who can't, but they tend to have poor work ethics:

"Despite measures of cognitive ability similar to high school graduates, GED recipients perform significantly worse in all dimensions when compared to them (Heckman and Rubinstein [2001]). GED recipients lack noncognitive skills such as perseverance and motivation that are essential to success in school and in life."

Indeed, over 10 percent of all GEDs are earned in prison:

"However, minority male high school completers are almost twice as likely as white males to possess a GED certificate (Cameron and Heckman [1993]). … A significant portion of the [ethnic] convergence reported in the official statistics is due to black males obtaining GED credentials in prison."

Needless to say, boning up for the GED is a better way to pass the time in the slammer than such popular alternatives as sharpening a shiv on your cell's concrete floor or making Pruno wine out of ketchup in your toilet. But it likely won't do you as much good as staying in school and out of prison in the first place.

Another major contributor to the long-term worsening in dropout rates since the late 1960s: changing ethnic ratios among young people. For example, the Hispanic share of public school students has increased from 6 percent in 1972 to 20 percent.

Dropout rates have gotten slightly worse for all groups, but I estimate that the majority of the deterioration for the country as a whole is simply because Hispanics and blacks making up a larger share of the population than they did 35 years ago.

In contrast to the federal propaganda, H&L find that the dropout rate is around 35 percent for both African-Americans and for those more assimilated Hispanics who either were born in America or have been here at least a decade.

In fact, despite somewhat higher test scores than blacks, these Americanized Hispanics still appear to leave school early at a somewhat greater rate than blacks.

H&L report that the dropout rate for all Hispanics, including recent immigrants, is significantly worse because

"… almost half of Hispanics in this [18-24] age group immigrated within the last ten years. These recent Hispanic immigrants are primarily low-skilled Mexican workers … The migration of workers with low levels of education has increased substantially over the past 40 years.…"

One of H&L's crucial findings: the ethnic gaps are not getting better:

"In fact, we find no evidence of convergence in minority-majority graduation rates over the past 35 years."

The H&L study carefully inspects seven massive "longitudinal" surveys that have tracked thousands of young people through their adult lives. It finds that graduation rates for blacks and Latinos improved during the 1960s, when legally segregated schooling was effectively abolished. But since then, there has been stagnation and, perhaps, slight deterioration for all three major ethnic groups.

This intractability of racial differences is something that is constantly assumed away by popular pundits who demonize anyone who suggests that these gaps might have genetic origins. "All we have to do is change the environment!"

Perhaps. But, despite 35 years of rapid changes in the social environment, nothing has happened to the dropout disparities. The only difference is that there are now far more low-performing minorities than in 1972.

With racial gaps, this is a common pattern seen across many different measures. Relative quality differences among the races languish virtually unchanged from decade to decade. But, primarily through immigration policy, we allow relative quantity to change relentlessly—in inevitably unfavorable directions.

What has the educational system been doing about the dropout problem?

In recent years, politicians keep raising the graduation requirements in theory, while giving principals and teachers incentives to lower them in practice. Many locales have piled on advanced math and other rigorous classes, plus mandatory exit exams, all the while threatening to penalize schools for their dropout rates.

The net result of all this sound and fury: dropout rates have crept upward slightly over the last generation and a half.

Our social engineers must show some humility. They must admit that they don't have much of a clue what will help. Realistically, the best we can hope for are modest improvements.

The simplest steps are to remove the disincentives that keep students from achieving their individual potentials.

To do that, however, the educational elite must finally take into account that we don't live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Half of the students must be below average in intelligence.

Yet, this simple tautology is off-limits these days … because more than half of the Non-Asian Minorities (NAMs) are below average.

Thus, America's education policy makers—ranging from school board members to the architects of the NCLB, Senator Kennedy and President Bush, and even on to the main financial backers of the meddling Gates Foundation, the hyper-intelligent billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett—seem so paralyzed by fear of being Watsoned for mentioning the Bell Curve gap in IQ that they ignore simple cause and effect reasoning.

For example, in his private business affairs, Microsoft founder Gates is notoriously preoccupied with uncovering and exploiting differences in human intelligence. Rich Karlgaard of Forbes reported:

"During that trip, I must have heard Mr. Gates mention 'IQ' a hundred times." [Microsoft's IQ Dividend, Wall Street Journal, July 28 2004]

And yet the Gates Foundation is one of the prime funders of the Higher Flapdoodle in public education. For instance, Gates largely paid for the Aspen Institute's Commission on the No Child Left Behind Law, which recently endorsed renewing the legislation's nutty mandate that every single student in America test as "proficient" (i.e., above average) by 2014.

The conventional wisdom is that having a two-digit IQ is such a horrible debility that the only thing we can do for the poor bastards is never mention "IQ" in public. But that just leads to more foolish, counter-productive policies—for example, the Educational Industry's obsession with getting students into four-year colleges because of the myth that their only options are "Yale or Jail".

Consider how the nation's second largest school district, Los Angeles, where over half of all NAMs drop out, is attempting to lower the dropout rate by making it harder to graduate—while simultaneously threatening school administrations with dire consequences if they don't raise the percentage of students graduating.

The LAUSD has essentially outsourced its high school graduation requirements planning to the elite University of California, which only allows in high students who have passed its rigorous "A-G" curriculum of required courses.

A 2005 press release from the Gates Foundation trumpeted:

"In June, the LAUSD board approved a plan requiring all high school students beginning with the class of 2008 to complete a 15-course series, known as the A-G Curriculum, in order to graduate. This is the same requirement for admission to the University of California and California State University systems."

The new A-G Curriculum requirement will mandate two years of foreign language (i.e., Spanish, as instruction in other languages are being phased out in LA).

Obviously, this is intended as a gift to Hispanic immigrants. But it will be another cross to bear for African-Americans, who have never shown much enthusiasm for learning Spanish. For example, lawyer Winston Kevin McKesson, a protégé of Johnnie Cochran who defended the rogue police officer upon whom Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning portrayal in "Training Day" was based, told me in 2001 that only 4 out the 900 black LAPD officers speak Spanish, even though a large fraction of the witnesses and perps in LA speak only Spanish.

Worse, every public high school student in LA will have to pass not just Algebra I and Geometry to graduate, but also Algebra II.

It would be nice if each student in LA were smart enough to pass Algebra II. But they aren't. (I wonder how many LA School Board members could pass Algebra II …)

As John Derbyshire's recent book Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra emphasizes, the essence of algebra is abstraction. Human beings differ wildly in their talent for abstract thinking, from Gauss at the top of the pyramid down to, well, a lot of high school students at the broad bottom.

Even a recent Gates Foundation press release admitted:

"only about 22 percent of 9th graders in the class of 2003 graduated having successfully completed the A-G curriculum."

There's a reason that most high school students in LA aren't successfully completing UC prerequisites: they aren't UC material.

By law, the UC system is reserved for the top 1/8th of California high school students.

Moreover, LA, America's City of the Future, is the anti-Lake Wobegon. In the LA school district, no more than ten percent of entering 9th graders will, before they leave high school, score at or above the intended mean of 1000 on the SAT—Math plus Verbal, not including the new Writing test. (By the way, that would be an 890 under the pre-1995 SAT scoring system.)

Redmond, we have a problem.

The fact is that it can be rational behavior for some students to drop out now rather than wait around to be superannuated because they can't pass their math requirements.

They get it. Why can't the people in charge figure that out?

What would a more sensible approach to the high school dropout problem look like?

  • The first point to remember: not all dropouts are created equal.

Every school has a certain number of anti-students who are so disruptive that the rest of the student body would be better off without them. For the most thuggish students, the dropout rate isn't too high—it's too low. So schools shouldn't be assessed negatively for every single dropout. They should be encouraged to grease the skids under their most counter-productive students.

(Most big school districts these days have "Continuation Schools" that serve as isolation pens for the most troublesome students, giving them the opportunity to continue their education online and with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers. So, the gangbangers and the like can still get a degree if they want to, but they don't have to drag other kids down with them.)

  • Second: we should be using both sticks AND carrots.

The latest educational fad—trying to terrify not-so-smart kids by threatening to flunk them out—is counterproductive. Many students quickly figure out that their odds of completing all the requirements and passing the exit exam are slim. So they give up midway through 9th grade.

It's time to admit that four years of high school, just like four years of college, isn't for everybody. We've long offered Associates of Arts degrees for passing two years of community college. Why not some kind of associate high school diploma for making it through 10th grade?

That would give the bottom tier of students a feasible goal, and then allow them to get out in the work force earlier, and with a credential telling employers they aren't complete goofs.

For those who can benefit from four years of high school, it makes sense to give them a hierarchy of diplomas to aim for. A good model might the traditional British degree classification, where, if you avoid failing, you are awarded a First, Second, Third, or Pass degree. These finer distinctions allow students of varying levels of ability to set appropriate goals for themselves. And they let employers get a more discriminating read on a graduate's potential.

There are many students in our public high schools for whom getting a Third would be a sizable accomplishment, a reasonable goal for which they could strive for four years. And just getting a Pass degree would at least represent to potential employers that they are reasonably diligent.

  • Finally: as always, when we find ourselves in a hole, it's time to stop digging.

Letting in more unskilled immigrants is just digging ourselves a deeper hole.

Realism isn't welcome in American public life. But the plain fact is that this blind political correctness is wrecking kids' lives.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website features his daily blog.]