Think You Know the Dropout Rates for Black Males? You’re Probably Wrong

The data to support a dropout crisis among black students are being misreported and used to support stigmatizing tactics.

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Billboard in Prince George’s County, Md.

Ivory Toldson

On Bladensburg Road along the border of Prince George’s County, Md., and Washington, D.C., a billboard reads, “57% of District of Columbia students drop out.” The billboard is large and imposing, with an orange backdrop and bold diagonal dashes on each side to mimic a road-hazard sign. Many would find the content of the sign to be consistent with the frequently cited report “The Urgency of Now: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males,” by the Schott Foundation, which states that Washington, D.C., has a graduation rate of 38 percent for black males. 

To be blunt, the message on the billboard is a lie, and technically, the percentage of students who drop out has only a little to do with the percentage that graduates. Yes, this is counterintuitive, but I will explain more later.

The high school dropout rate in D.C. is less than 10 percent for all students, and 14 percent for black males (pdf). The Schott Foundation’s observation that the graduation rate for black males is 38 percent is accurate. However, since most people do not know the difference between the graduation rate and the dropout rate, the report is misrepresented far more than it is accurately presented. Anyone doing an analysis of demographic trends in the D.C. metro area understands that any measure of cohort graduation rates will be influenced by the outmigration of black people from the city core.

Across the nation, most parents of schoolchildren are bombarded with dropout and graduation statistics that are very upsetting. The numbers as typically presented imply that either the public school system is woefully inadequate in meeting the educational needs of black students or black students have incredible problems adjusting to a normal school environment.

Many parents will respond to these numbers by removing their child from the school system, inadvertently making the numbers worse. When a child leaves a high school to attend a high school in another district before he or she graduates, the graduation rate for the entire district goes down. 

Civic leaders in Washington, D.C., should be concerned about the quality of education for all, the availability of affordable housing and many other issues. However, civic leaders who believe that 62 percent of black males, and 57 percent of all teenagers and young adults, are out of school and on the streets without a high school diploma will probably promote misguided practices, blaming stigmatizing and extreme agendas.

What Is the Difference Between a Graduation Rate and a Dropout Rate?

This is the boring technical stuff, but it’s essential for gaining an understanding of graduation rates and dropout rates. Independent analyses of graduation rates, such as the Schott Foundation report, estimate graduation rates by dividing the number of students receiving diplomas by the number of students beginning high school four years earlier. This method yields a national graduation rate of 47 percent for black males and 78 percent for white males.

The National Center for Education Statistics tracks dropout rates for the U.S. population using the Current Population Survey. The “event dropout” rate refers to the percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds in the U.S. who withdrew from grades 10 to 12 within the last 12-month period. The NCES estimates the current “event dropout” rates for black students to be 6.4 percent, compared with 2.3 for white students.

NCES uses the CPS to provide an estimate of the “status dropout” by surveying the proportion of the population who are between the ages of 16 and 24, are not enrolled in school, and have not earned a high school diploma or graduate equivalent. The current “status dropout” rate for black males is 8.7 percent, compared with 5.4 percent for white males and 19.9 percent for Hispanic males.

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