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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

Is There a Dropout Crisis Among African-American Males?

In the context of education, most people who use the word “crisis” are either victims of propaganda or being intentionally hyperbolic to sell a point or an agenda. There are many educational issues that need to be resolved for the black community, but there is an inherent danger in propagating a high school dropout crisis.

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For instance, according to the Schott Foundation report, only 28 percent of black males graduate (pdf) from New York City schools, which can be interpreted as meaning that 72 percent of black males are dropping out. This would indeed be a crisis.

Imagine 72 percent of the city’s young black males being out of school and on the streets. In raw numbers, this would mean that about 155,000 black males in New York City between the ages of 16 and 24 are high school dropouts, with only the remaining fewer than 61,000 either in high school or college or finishing any type of diploma or degree program.

How alarming does this sound? This is scary enough for someone to support any extreme agenda, from the complete privatization of public schools to stop and frisk.

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When we use the Current Population Survey to estimate the number of black males in the New York City metro area between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and have not completed high school, the percentage of the total population of black males in that age range is actually around 15 percent.

Meanwhile, insidious practices in New York City are creating a racial caste system in education. While black people are supporting inept dropout-prevention programs, the school system is keeping black students from specialized high schools, like the Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech, by creating an arcane testing criterion. It is also eliminating advanced math and science classes from schools with the largest percentage of black students. The school system eliminates the possibility for many black students to earn a Regents diploma because of the curriculum it offers.

In fact, the primary reason the Schott Foundation’s number for New York is so absurdly low is not that black males are dropping out. It is that they are not earning Regents diplomas. This should change just about everything about the way we currently address the 72 percent of black males who did not make the Schott Foundation’s cut in New York City.

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What Are We Doing to Make Sure African-American Children Know the Truth About Themselves?

I was honored to receive an invitation from the Rev. Al Sharpton to serve on a panel for the National Action Network Convention in April. On the panel Steve Perry, principal of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., admonished public schools by saying that 50 percent of black males do not graduate. Later, Sharpton said on MSNBC that only 52 percent of black males graduate on time.

The often stated notion that more than half of black males drop out, or do not graduate, is not true. Cohort graduation-rate calculations miss students who graduate late, graduate early, obtain a GED or transfer to schools outside their district. None of this information should be construed to minimize the importance of collective action to promote black male achievement. Putting this information in perspective, we should acknowledge that completion rates for black males continue to lag behind white males. 

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I have described how widespread recitals and simplistic representations of very complex calculations of the dropout rate and graduation rate are creating more problems than solutions for black males. People who do not understand how any given statistic is derived simply should not use the statistic. And people who know the truth but continue to distort and sensationalize the problem through statistics because they want people to pay attention to them are a part of the problem.

Earlier this year, Adam Eugene, a sophomore at Destrehan High School in New Orleans, told me, “Dr. Toldson, we have been hearing negative things about ourselves all of our lives. This is the first time that we are hearing that the news about us isn’t all bad. A lot of times, when children hear negative things, they start to believe they can’t learn and give up. So my question is, what are you doing to make sure children much younger than us hear the truth about themselves?”

What are we doing?

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is an author, researcher and educational scholar best known for his publications on academic success among school-age black males and debunking myths about the black community. He is currently on temporary leave from his academic post at Howard University. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.