A week ago, the NY Times published a story that revealed just how serious the nation’s dropout crisis really is. The article reports that although states have historically obscured their graduation rates for fear of “embarrassment,” the gap between the real numbers and what’s reported has widened significantly since the adoption of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Apparently, the formula states are required to use by NCLB is so inaccurate, deceiving, and biased towards higher rates that individual states use a different formula and publish their own results on their state’s website. For example, California reported an “official graduation rate” of 83 percent to the feds, but reported a rate of 67 percent on its state website.
So just how many students don’t graduate every year?
The Alliance for Excellent Education , a national policy and advocacy organization that works to make every child a high school graduate, puts that number at 1.23 million, or about 30 percent of each graduating class. Over half of these students come from the nation’s 2,000 “dropout factories” (schools who graduate less than 60 percent of their students), which enroll 32 percent of the students of color, but only 8 percent of white students.
Although NCLB is not wholly responsible for the “dropout crisis,” it can be reasonably argued that it is doing little solve it, especially when it obscures just how badly the educational system is failing our students. Schools are under such pressure to improve their graduation rates that experts believe some schools prod their poor performing students to drop out, and urge them to get a G.E.D. instead.
Moreover, the NCLB even allows states to establish their own graduation rate goals and requires only minimal annual improvement. These rules enable states like California to approach education with such nonchalance that it believes improving by one-tenth of 1 percent per year is good enough. At this rate, Daniel J. Losen, who has worked with the UCLA Civil Rights Project, says that it would take California 500 years to meet its graduation goal.
States are quick to slash their education budgets whenever there is even a mention of a budget shortfall, which undoubtedly prevents them from improving graduation rates. But although these cuts may “save” a billion here and there, they end up costing the state and the country much more in the long run. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the 1.23 million dropouts from the class of 2007 will cost the country more than $350 billion in lost wages, taxes, productivity, and healthcare expenditures over their lifetimes, and almost $50 billion a year in crime-related costs.
Poring over these numbers, I think it’s safe to assume that the NCLB has been structured in such a way that it 1) distorts reality, 2) tests students every step of the way but fails to make sure they “cross the finish line,” and 3) obfuscates administrative accountability. This places graduation rates and the success of the NCLB solely on the backs of students, and disproportionately on the backs of students of color whose graduation rates remain over 20 percent behind that of whites.
If the federal government refuses to know the truth about its own students, how can we expect them to devise an effective national policy that will address our most pressing educational problems?