New estimates of the high school dropout rate

I was shocked by today’s report that the high school dropout rate in California has reached 24%.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Deploying a long-promised tool to track high school dropouts, the state released numbers Wednesday estimating that 1 in 4 California students– and 1 in 3 in Los Angeles– quit school. The rates are considerably higher than previously acknowledged but lower than some independent estimates.

The figures are based on a new statewide tracking system that relies on identification numbers that were issued to California public school students beginning in fall 2006.

The ID numbers allow the state Department of Education to track students who leave one school and enroll in another in California, even if it is in a different district or city. In the past, the inability to accurately track such students gave schools a loophole, allowing them to say that departing students had transferred to another school when, in some cases, they had dropped out….

State data analysts were able to come up with a four-year “derived” dropout rate, which estimates how many students drop out over the course of their high school careers.

For the state overall, it was 24.2%, up substantially from the 13.9% calculated for the previous school year using an older, discredited method.

I can imagine serious measurement problems associated with issues such as out-of-state emigration and accurately tracking moves by undocumented residents. But if the estimate is accurate, it suggests that a huge number of young people in California are destined for a life of poverty.

Rather grim news, I’m thinking, in what it could portend for future economic growth and prison populations. And should be a wake-up call for out-of-the-box thinking about how to fix a badly broken system.

Source: Yellen (2006)

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35 thoughts on “New estimates of the high school dropout rate

  1. DrTJD

    Grim, indeed.
    However, consider that these students don’t suddenly become disaffected and drop from the schools. One easily imagines that (these) 1 of 4 middle-school students are in class snoozing, texting, creating mischief or mayhem.
    They pull the academic achievement of California students lower throughout earlier grades as they demand behavioral or remedial attention from staff.

  2. jg

    Aw, c’mon Professor, quit complaining and open up your wallet as the Calif. Teachers’ Assoc. is asking in their radio ads.
    With regard to Dr. Yellen’s graph, I found the work in ‘The Bell Curve’ more convincing, that IQ, not education level, better explains wages and a whole host of other societal ills and goods.

  3. James I. Hymas

    But if the estimate is accurate, it suggests that a huge number of young people in California are destined for a life of poverty.

    I am often amused by educational system employees who trot out correlations between level of education attained and income ultimately earned as if they were causally related. When a university big-wheel solemnly states a conclusion that wouldn’t survive peer-review by tenth-graders, what else is there to do but laugh?

    Do you have any figures on the potential for confounding in the graph? It seems to me that native intelligence, parental influence, ambition, health and desire to work hard are potential causal factors for both income and education.

  4. esb

    What is most striking is that the divergence begins with the arrival of the Reagan Administration.

  5. bugly

    Holy Cow, if the real estate market’s bad now, imagine what it’ll be like when this cohort becomes the purchasers.

  6. jult52

    bugly – The stats don’t indicate whether the true dropout rate has been increasing (or decreasing).

  7. John S.

    Dropping out of high school is not the end of the story. Ever hear of GED classes? From what I recall of my Chicago high school, GED night classes are probably a more pleasant way to earn a diploma.
    Since the teachers unions will not permit school choice, dropping out and getting a diploma later is probably a wise choice for a poor student trapped in a crime-ridden, underperforming high school.

  8. DickF

    This is a serious problem, but more than anything I attribute it to the state taking over the schools. In the past many societies understood that when the state takes over education, education turns from teaching to propaganda and brain-washing. If you look at students today you find that they know more about Al Gore than they go about George Washington for example, or they can put a condom on a banana but don’t know how to balance a check book.
    A few years ago I was reading an interview with David McCullough, author of John Adams, and he made the point that the literacy rate in Massachusetts was higher when John Adams was President than it is today, and this study seems to demonstrate that the trend is continuing.
    But what is key about our country and education when John Adams was president is that all the schools were private and the students were not forced to go to school but had to work to get into school. Today students have disdane for education because it has no meaning to them until it is too late. We need to return to a totally private system where education is better, less expensive and the students have a stake.
    Central planning saps the humanity from people. The state takes over benevolence and such, including education and so parents and students take no ownership. All of the burden is placed on the teachers, the educational institutions, and the state, and while there is blame all around there is no improvement.

  9. spencer

    In my opinion the best education institution in the US is the US Army. I would like to see a major experiment where the Army uses the methods they have developed over decades to educate EMs with great success to try to teach the dropouts.

  10. Jeff

    Spencer, I was in the Army for 7 years, went through Basic Training, two AIT’s, NCO Academy and I also taught some classes. I don’t recall seeing anything special about how the Army teaches. The only real difference was that, in Basic and AIT, the students were motivated by the fact that they had to pass to keep their jobs.

  11. PaulS

    I don’t know whether to be shocked or not because a quick check with Dr. Google tells me that reported rates vary by a factor of 5 or more. I would be interested to see a trendline going back decades, produced by a consistent method as close as possible to the one that produced this number.
    Given the diversity and cross purposes of the comments so far, I don’t suppose the problem will be solved anytime soon. So I’ll just put in my oar.
    I think postmodern political correctness in the academy – carried to the nth degree in education schools – contributes substantially. When you have been trained to believe that the random unintelligible maunderings of the town drunk or the village idiot are just as good as, and just as worthy of study as, the writings of a Shakespeare, then you will be entirely unfit to contribute usefully to any conceivable socially worthwhile education system. Your students, at least the ones capable of learning anything, will learn only that putting out any effort is a chump’s game. And unfortunately, their parents may follow the path of least resistance, the path that maximizes their own opportunities to watch more TV, and simply go along.
    Until and unless the emphasis is shifted from nurturing the bloated entitlement-minded egos of the lazy and stupid – and of the postmodernist enablers ensconced in comfortable tenured chairs and thus sheltered from the economic consequences – this boat will go on sinking. Welcome to the Third World.

  12. JDH

    James Hymas, we both know that there is a huge academic literature on this question, and causal interpretation is unquestionably problematic. Though I note the conclusion of David Card’s survey:

    Consistent with the summary of the literature from the 1960s and 1970s by Griliches
    (1977, 1979) the average (or average marginal) return to education in a given population
    is not much below the estimate that emerges from a simple cross-sectional regression
    of earnings on education. The “best available” evidence from the latest studies of
    identical twins suggests a small upward bias (on the order of 10%) in the simple OLS

    Note that the graph presented above tracks the change since 1973, and reports that the real wage for the bottom group has consistently fallen over a 30-year period for which aggregate real income was rising substantially. I’m not sure what interpretation you’d give to that reduced-form correlation that would leave you anything other than concerned about an increase in the number of individuals destined for that bottom group.

  13. pwyll

    esd: the divergence started long before the reagan administration. (details in the bell curve.) the reason why the graph makes it look that way is that income levels for all educational classes are normalized to 100 at the starting year, so you can see the divergence more easily. Obviously, Ph.D.s and high school dropouts did not have the same incomes in 1973! IIRC, the divergence really started in the 50’s and 60’s.

  14. pwyll

    James Hymas is right, of course. The graph is not showing diverging income levels by education, but rather diverging income levels by IQ – that’s the real story. Or is it the case that all high school doctorates could earn Ph.D.s if they just tried harder?
    Anyway, until we figure out how to boost intelligence with gene therapy, the trend is, unfortunately, likely to continue no matter what policies are implemented.

  15. Josh Stern

    If you click through the link on Yellen’s PDF above, the paper shows another graph that gives the growth of hourly wages as a function of their percentile ranking. According to that graph, even the 10th percentile from the bottom showed some real wage growth. I don’t know how to reconcile the two graphs and the report about the high percentage of dropouts. Do they mean the same thing by “hourly wage” or is one the avg. wage of people in the group and the other the avg. wage of only people with some reported wage?
    Because if they are not measuring something different, then the graphs seem to imply the number of HS dropouts in that survey is less than 10%. Am I missing something?

    Incidentally, it probably doesn’t change the story, but does anyone who hangs out with Ph.D’s or M.D.’s not believe that the ratio of hours actually worked to reported hours for wage purposes has grown substantially over time?

  16. James I. Hymas

    there is a huge academic literature on this question, and causal interpretation is unquestionably problematic.

    Sure … and the trouble is that most of the information that gets filtered down to non-specialists such as myself is presented by advocates rather than dispassionate researchers. And the primary data is simply not comprehensible to non-specialists such as myself (perhaps I should have stayed in school longer!).

    For a small glimpse of the other side of the question, there is an article by Nie & Golde of Stanford that concluded: the most important policy implication of this research is to underline how little we firmly understand, after so many years of empirical and theoretical research, about the fundamental mechanisms and causal structure that link education to all that it purports to produce for individuals and societies. If we are to allocate educational funds with maximum efficiency, clearly we need to know with much more certainty what those funds can – and cannot – do to better both individuals’ opportunities and society as a whole

    With respect to the graph of the change from 1973, I will suggest that:
    (i) 1973 was another world. A sixteen-year-old could, quite rationally, quit school as soon as the auto plant put on a third shift.
    (ii) the percentages of the population in each cohort have change dramatically over the duration of the graph.

  17. JDH

    Good question, Josh Stern. I haven’t played with the raw data myself, but one possibility is that the fraction of employed workers with less than high school education had been drifting down. Note also that the fraction of employed workers with less than high school education and the fraction of current population aged 19 who’ve completed high school are two different numbers. Many of the dropouts are not employed.

  18. Josh Stern

    JDH, yes that was the reconciling possibility of different mean to “hourly wage” in the two graphs that I mentioned above. It seems to suggest that all three measurements – i.e. growth of hourly wage even for the 10th percentile, growth of HS dropouts, and decline in wages for HS dropouts, points to a growing gap between the number of measured jobs and the number of measured working age people. Being a HS dropout is, for whatever reason (lack of diploma, lack of learned skills, or lack of natural ability), highly correlated with being last in line for the jobs that do exist; the observed drop in overall wages of HS dropouts is not driven by lower salaries but rather the lack of any salary at all. So we can’t say how decreasing the percentage of HS dropouts would lead to wage growth. If the problem is really not enough skilled workers then it would help. But if the problem is not enough jobs (at or above current minimum wage+overhead) or (less likely) not enough interest in taking those jobs, then it wouldn’t help. Another possibility is that employers have become (probably rationally) worried about hiring workers that will be unproductive due to poor attitude/discipline/health and that HS dropout is correlated with that category (both in reality and in hiring perceptions).

  19. GK

    This is not shocking at all, once you put aside political correctness and recognize that different races put different levels of effort into educating their kids.
    CA has long been losing whites and gaining low-income Hispanics. These Hispanics don’t tend to finish high schools. That is all there is.
    Asians have much higher completion rates than whites, but sadly, Asians are not numerous enough to uplift the statistics.
    White graduation rates have probably improved in CA in 30 years, but whites have shrunk as a share of the population.
    So the best thing America could do is block illegal immigration of low-skilled people from Mexico and Central America, while INCREASING immigration of highly educated people from India, China, South Korea, Russia, etc.
    Is that politically correct? No. Is it the right answer? YES.

  20. Phil Rothman

    The dropout data are consistent with what I observed as my son moved through high school in Greenville, NC (he graduated in 2006). Officially, the graduation rate was in the neighborhood of 98%. But that didn’t square with the roughly 450 students enrolled at the beginning of his freshman-year class and the 330 students who ended up graduating with him. About a year ago I learned that the population the local school system used to compute the graduation rate was the set of students enrolled in October of the class’s senior year (note that here the school year begins in August). Now, due to (I believe) NCLB-type regulations, graduation rates are computed for the demographic cohort which begins high school together; and they are quite consistent with both the apparent large number of dropouts I observed during my son’s high school years and the data reported in the LAT article cited by Jim Hamilton above.

  21. Joseph Somsel

    The reality on the ground here in California largely supports GK’s analysis and Ed’s supposition. Yes, it is a lately arrived, Hispanic effect.
    Another way to look at it, why is this a huge public policy issue? DickF has the key – because education is close to a government monopoly. The state of California spends about $22,000 a year to educate my two daughters in public schools. That means, on average, I must be paying $22k a year extra in taxes.
    If I were paying that for an education of my choice, I would shop around and would, little doubt, find a better deal – either lower cost or better, more valuable quality. i would too, except I can’t afford to pay twice.
    Frankly, beyond basic reading and writing in English, I have little direct interest in the education of other peoples’ kids – that’s their parents’ responsibility. Except that I’m paying, no matter what, thanks to that government monopoly that doesn’t really want to take responsibility for getting the reading and writing part right.
    If we can’t shut the open borders, let them drop out until the parents and kids decide it is worth their while to attend, free of charge. It is less out-of-pocket expense for the system. I think we’re pretty close to labor market saturation for the uneducated already.

  22. Unsympathetic

    The education system in the US is inane and misdirected.
    1) Instead of booting kids out of school for acting up – or failing – teachers MUST keep them around, dragging down the education level of the kids who are in school to learn.
    Waah waah. Some kid acts up in 7th grade? Guess what, it’s the parents’ fault, not the teacher’s. I’m wholly in favor of forcing those students out of school and making the parents deal with them. If parents were slapped in the face with the reality that their decision to have a child is in fact their responsibility, irresponsible (predominately low-wage immigrant) people won’t see child-bearing as a “good” thing until they’re ready to assume the complete monetary responsibility.
    The US needs to stop being the land of the freeloader.
    2) No Child Left Behind should be named No Child Allowed to Succeed. Schools are judged based on their low performers (rather than pushing the unmotivated faster to their future life of “would you like fries with that”) and this drags down the good performers who teachers actually want to work with.
    Why are US schools so horrible? It’s not the teachers, they are highly trained professionals. It’s the families who promote the bad behavior of the uninvolved students. What happened to the catholic school ruler across the knuckles?
    I’m not interested in stroking the ego of apes who shouldn’t be trusted with a car let alone the parenting of a human life. Ultimately, you have the government you deserve – and the policies of the US have been perfectly designed for the complete incompetence of its educational system.

  23. Mike Laird

    The Rochester, NY newspaper recently did an article tracking a kindergarten class from 12 years ago to (a few) graduations from the Rochester high schools. One third (that’s 1/3) of the kindergarten class graduated 12 years later. This is a school system that has to serve breakfast to 20% of the students because they do not get breakfast at home. These folks are not immigrants. Once standardized testing was required by law, the teachers got busy and started to increase the number of kids passing the test, but its still low (30-50% in many schools), and why did it take testing for the teachers to start getting results. Like many professionals, some of them “coast” when there is no accountability. Students have and will suffer their entire lives because of these many problems.

    Rochester, NY is not unique and is not the bottom of the barrel. Education in the US is abysmal because of both family and “failure to teach” problems. Look a little more closely in your own community and you will find similar problems. Its everywhere. Very fundamental changes at home and in schools must occur if the US is to maintain a highly educated workforce and population.

  24. lark

    I’m shocked by the crackpot ideas above. Is this how the dominance of the right wing has effected our good sense? For heaven’s sake, going back to a 17th century model of education, private only, would destroy our country’s competitiveness in the real world. Get real, and deal with the real students in our real schools.
    The problem with this country is that we love to treat our youth like trash, and then we adopt a posture of high dudgeon when we are forced to deal with the result.
    No wonder we have the highest rate of substance abuse esp drugs in the world. We have bad schools, bad poverty, bad jobs, declining health and health care, declining benefits and wages, etc ad nauseum. Thanks right wing nut jobs, for all you’ve done for this country. Job of the future: prison guard.

  25. Luke

    A 1/4 Dropout rate is indeed high, though not entirely unsurprising. Young people are not entirely rational beings, and tend to ignore future returns in favor of the present. Simply stating the system is broken fails to take into account the motivations of students to perform and exceed expectations. There are plenty of low cost ways to improve schools and reduce dropout rates (for instance: year round schooling, after-school programs) but there isn’t the will by administrators or low income parents to get these measures adopted.
    As for the comments espousing right wing ideals, which are not only racist but entirely incorrect (when adjusted for income, Hispanics have the same graduation rate of White Americans), privatizing education would likely segregate quality based on price, exacerbating income disparity problems. Education should be available to those who want it, not those who can afford it.

  26. Joseph Somsel

    So who are several of us Californians to believe, Luke’s “studies” or our own lying eyes?
    Of course, the critical fudge factor, as I alluded to, is “adjusted for income.” Immigrant Hispanics in California arrive with low income and education backgrounds. Their children therefore can be adjusted away in Luke’s worldview.
    Note that Cuban immigrants during my youth in Florida arrived with education levels ABOVE the average Floridian at the time. My favorite professor at the University of Florida was a Cuban and went on to high government appointment.
    I guess there is something to the notion that to a liberal, anyone who gets the better of them in an argument MUST be a racist.
    We can agree that the motivations of the student is a prime issue. We offer all students a free high school education. Whether they think it worth their while against opportunity costs depends on the quality of the education offered and on their ambition. However, efforts to improve the former are too often frustrated by bureaucracy and the teachers’ union.

  27. Warland

    Wow, this is apparently all we can expect from (presumably educated) rightists in serious policy discussions: loony, unworkable, ideologically-driven non-solutions (eliminate public schools!); selfish, counterproductive myopia (I have no personal stake in an educated population!) and overt, unapologetic racism (Hispanics don’t value education!)

  28. Anonymous

    “We need to return to a totally private system.”
    “…different races put different levels of effort into educating their kids…These Hispanics don’t tend to finish high schools. That is all there is.”
    “I have little direct interest in the education of other peoples’ kids”
    Where are my straw men?

  29. Joseph Somsel

    Two of those statements are not mine but I don’t find them “loony.”
    The idea of “eliminating public schools” is not to be dismissed out of hand. That’s not the same as eliminating public funding of education – ie vouchers. I think that more competition for the public’s educational dollar in a mixed, non-monopolist system would raise overall standards. Government schools may well no longer find clients in a full voucher system. How is that unworkable?
    While “Hispanics” is a well-known over-generalization (see my Cuban example), the facts are that recent Mexican and Central American immigrant families in California (at least) as a population DON’T encourage educational attainment as vigorously as the historical median. Maybe they don’t see the value in what the California public schools are offering compared to the opportunity costs. Are we to ignore the facts on the ground to avoid the false accusation of racism? That would be dysfunctional.
    I can take responsibility for my statement that I have little direct interest in the education of the progeny of other people’s children. I did qualify that to say that they should be able to read and write. I’ll make it clear that those skills should be in English but the bilingual movement doesn’t even insist on that.
    There is some reasoning as to why education is mandatory only up to the age of 16 – not everyone wants or needs more education that that. Would you require a PhD for a roofer or a waitress? Both are honorable jobs but it would be a waste of resources. (That’s a bit of a strawman argument itself but should make the point in an ad absurdium way.) How is a more optimal allocation of society’s resources (taxes to education) counterproductive?
    “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink” is one folksy take on the issue. Ultimately, we’ve restricted many people’s legitimate choice enough with the 16 y/o requirement. The people who have a DIRECT interest in their future and that of their children should make that decision. How is that selfish of me to recognize other people’s freedoms?

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