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MOTHER, SHOULD I TRUST THE GOVERNMENT?: National Center for Education Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau Data Understate Dropout Problem

Two government agencies currently report graduation rates: the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the U.S. Census Bureau. Unfortunately, the findings of these two sources are viewed with deep skepticism by researchers and practitioners alike.

According to NCES, the national high school completion rate in 2000 was 86.5 percent. However, this figure comes from a survey of a post-school-age population that includes individuals with General Education Degrees (GED), and fails to include individuals who are in prison-a large proportion of whom are high school dropouts. In fact, according to Education and Correctional Populations, a report from the Bureau of Justice, approximately 75 percent of state prison inmates neither graduated from high school nor earned a GED.

More fundamentally, several researchers believe NCES’s recommended method of calculating graduation rates is flawed. It relies heavily on counting dropouts to determine graduation rates, a notoriously difficult task. Students who drop out are by definition hard to track: they are no longer in school, and their whereabouts may be unknown. Using NCES’s recommended method, districts can count only students who self-report as dropouts (by signing a form or officially notifying the district). All other students who leave are then either assumed to still be in school or are ignored in the district’s calculations. This method, used by many states, is almost guaranteed to produce an artificially high graduation rate. As a result, any statistics that NCES derives from these state calculations are seriously problematic, at best.

In calculating its graduation rate, the U.S. Census Bureau uses data obtained from a question on the Current Population Survey, which asks about the highest level of education completed. The CPS method is even more inaccurate than the data reported by NCES. Greg Forster of the Manhattan Institute has noted that the CPS openly includes GED recipients with regular high school graduates. This inclusion is suspect, he says, because numerous studies have shown that individuals with GEDs have success rates more like those of high school dropouts.

Second, like NCES, the Census Bureau does not include individuals who are in prison. Certain other demographic groups, such as urban minority males, may be more difficult to reach through the census and are therefore not counted; their graduation rates are also disproportionately low. Finally, the census is based entirely on self-reporting. Because there may be a social stigma associated with dropping out of high school, individuals may falsely report that they or their children graduated when they did not. According to the most recent estimate from the Census Bureau, the national graduation rate is 85 percent.

Greg Forster of the Manhattan Institute criticizes the Census Bureau’s methods in an editorial in the Fordham Foundation’s Education Gadfly on July 15:

Christopher Swanson of the Urban Institute notes problems with the census and NCES in Education Week on July 28:


Even though NCES and the U.S. Census Bureau include them in counts of high school graduates, recipients of a GED resemble dropouts more closely than they do high school graduates in terms of life outcomes and earning potential.

While almost 60 percent of GED recipients enroll in some form of postsecondary education, the majority fail to complete their program. Additionally, their completion results are significantly lower than those of their peers with high school diplomas. About three-quarters of individuals with GEDs who enroll in community college fail to complete their program; for high school graduates, the number is 44 percent. GED recipients who enroll in a four-year college face a nearly insurmountable challenge-only 5 percent receive a four-year college degree, compared to 75 percent of high school graduates.

GED recipients not only complete higher education programs at a lower rate than their peers with high school diplomas, they also earn less over their lifetimes. Wendy Schwartz, in Urban Education: School Dropouts: New Information About an Old Problem, estimates that dropouts will earn $200,000 less than high school graduates, and more than $800,000 less than college graduates, in the course of their lives. High school dropouts also earn less than their peers did a generation ago. According to the NCES, high school dropouts earned 67 cents for every dollar high school graduates earned in 1987; however, in 1995 a high school dropout earned only 48 cents for every dollar earned by a high school graduate.

Career options for individuals with only a GED are also limited. The United States military has ceased to count GED holders as high school graduates, because in studies conducted by the military over the last twenty years, the GED attrition rates have been found to be comparable to those of dropouts. For each year between 1977 and 1983, for instance, the thirty-six-month attrition rates for GED holders were just about twice those of regular high school diploma graduates and close to those of high school dropouts. Today, Uncle Sam has upgraded his workforce-military branches no longer take high school dropouts, and less than 10 percent of new army recruits, 6 percent of navy recruits, and 1 percent of air force recruits have GEDs in place of a regular diploma.

There is some good news for individuals with GEDs: researchers have found that for students who leave school with weak cognitive skills, a GED shows employers looking for entry-level workers that they had the discipline to complete a lengthy exam and have at least a basic level of skill. Given this fact, perhaps we should just view GEDs as a second chance to pass into higher education rather than as an equivalent to a high school diploma. For as we’ve seen, when comparing high school graduates to GED recipients, the numbers just don’t add up.


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