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January 30, 2006

How Educators Hide the Sorry Truth

Minority dropout rates are scandalous—and a well-kept secret. Paul E. Peterson on the smoke and mirrors used by the public education cartel to conceal this sad fact.

Among the “talented tenth”—those in the top 10 percent of test takers—reading scores have dropped four points since 1971, and math scores have not budged since first measured in 1978. So say the latest (2004) results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s report card.

At the other end of the scale, dropout rates have actually increased since 1990, rising to 30 percent of all 17-year-olds. Among blacks, the dropout rate is running somewhere between 50 and 60 percent—a sad fact that remains one of the best-kept secrets in American education.

Because few people know the facts, in a recently issued book Michael Dyson scolds Bill Cosby for (accurately) lamenting the fact that only about half of blacks graduate from high school. Dyson “corrected” him, saying the dropout rate is only 17 percent—an inaccuracy that earned Dyson warm praise from a New York Times book reviewer.

The reviewer’s error only shows how successful the public education cartel has been in misleading the public. To hide actual dropout rates, most school districts report as dropouts only those who entered the year as seniors but did not remain in school until the end of that year. All other dropouts over the preceding three years—and all the summers in between, when most dropping out actually occurs—are statistically ignored.

The U.S. Department of Education has long been complicit in fostering that misperception. To his credit, Russ Whitehurst, head of the department’s Institute of Education Sciences, is now actively working to remedy the situation—as are the nation’s governors, who are now embarked on a Herculean effort to develop a multistate common definition and gauge of high school completion.

Getting the facts right will be a start. But we then need to do something about it.

We currently base our high school policies on two contradictory assumptions: (1) adolescents are responsible enough to choose their own curriculum from the shopping mall of choices available, and (2) adolescents should not be held responsible for their performance. Testing expectations should be minimal, and graduation requirements should be easily achievable.

No wonder the United States is desperately searching for ways to import talent from abroad. If we are to regain our educational strength in a world where other nations are passing us by, we need to hold students responsible for more than just selecting the courses they want to take.

To graduate from high school, students should be expected to pass, at as high a level as they can, a challenging, substantive examination in a variety of subjects that allow them to demonstrate—to colleges and employers—just how accomplished they are. The Advanced Placement Test is a good beginning, but until more than 9 percent of all public school students take that test, it will not have a broad impact.

Paul E. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, and editor in chief of Education Next: A Journal of Opinion and Research. He is also the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. His research interests include educational policy, federalism, and urban policy. Some of his current research efforts include evaluating the effectiveness of school reform plans around the country. Peterson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has won numerous awards, including the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Prize.

This essay appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on October 3, 2005. The Koret Task Force book Within Our Reach: How America Can Educate Every Child, edited by John Chubb, is published by Rowman and Littlefield. To order, call the National Book Network at 800.462.6420 or visit