Dropout Nation

The number of high school students who leave before graduating is higher--much higher--than you think. Inside one town's struggle to reverse the tide

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H. Schmid / zefa / Corbis

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The GED trick is only one of many deployed by state and local governments around the country to disguise the real dropout rates. Houston, for example, had its notorious "leaver codes"--dozens of excuses, such as pregnancy and military service, that were often applied to students who were later reclassified as dropouts by outside auditors. The Federal Government has been similarly deceptive, producing rosy graduation-rate estimates--usually between 85% and 90%--by relying only on a couple of questions buried deep within the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. The survey asks whether respondents have a diploma or GED. Critics say the census count severely underreports dropout numbers, in part because it doesn't include transients or prisoners, populations with a high proportion of dropouts.

In 2001, Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, published a study that peeled back the layers of statistical legerdemain. Poring over raw education data, he asked himself a basic question: What percentage of kids who start at a high school finish? The answers led Greene and subsequent researchers around the country to place the national graduation rate at anywhere from 64% to 71%. It's a rate that most researchers say has remained fairly static since the 1970s, despite increased attention on the plight of public schools and a vigorous educational-reform movement.

Starting a year ago, the people of Shelbyville began to admit the scope of their problem by asking themselves the same simple questions about who was graduating. It helped that superintendent Adams was new to his job and that the high school's principal was too. They had a clean slate and little incentive to make excuses for the old way of doing things.

THE PUSHOUT

Sarah Miller, 28, was victim of those old ways. An intelligent but rebellious teenager with a turbulent home life, Sarah began falling behind in attendance and classwork her freshman year. Like many other 15-year-olds, she had a talent for making poor decisions. She and her friends would often skip out of school after lunch and cruise up and down Broadway. Teachers rarely stopped them, but school authorities knew what she and her friends were up to. One morning Sarah went to the school office to discuss getting back on track but got a surprise. One of the administrators asked her point-blank, "Why don't you just quit school?" "I was just a kid," says Sarah with a laugh. "It was like they said the magic words. So I told them, 'O.K.!' And I left."

Sarah never set foot in a high school again. She got her GED, but now she's too afraid to try community college, she says, because she doesn't want to look stupid. Although she has a house she owns with her husband and a fine job serving coffee, biscuits and small talk at Ole McDonald's Cafe in nearby Acton, Ind., Sarah is not without regret. "It would have been nice to have someone pushing me to stay," she says. "Who knows how things would have turned out?"

Researchers call students like Sarah "pushouts," not dropouts. Shelbyville High's new principal, Tom Zobel, says he's familiar with the mind-set. "Ten years ago," he says, "if we had a problem student, the plan was, 'O.K., let's figure out how to get rid of this kid.' Now we have to get them help."

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