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Losing Our Future

How Minority Youth Are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis

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Document date: February 25, 2004
Released online: February 25, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University (CRP) was founded in 1996 by Professors Christopher Edley, Jr. of Harvard Law School and Gary Orfield of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Its central mission is to help renew the civil rights movement by bridging the worlds of ideas and action, and by becoming a preeminent source of intellectual capital and a forum for building consensus within that movement. We achieve this by interweaving strategies of research and policy analysis, and by building strong collaborations between researchers, community organizations, and policy makers. Our dual objectives are to: (1) raise the visibility of, and attention to, racial justice national policy debates; and (2) arm local and national civil rights and educational organizations with credible research to inform their legal, political and public education efforts. CRP wrote the narrative and worked closely with the Urban Institute to analyze the data contained in the report.

The Urban Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization, examines America's social, economic, and governance problems. It provides information, analyses, and perspectives to public and private decisionmakers to help them address these problems and strives to deepen citizens' understanding of the issues and trade-offs that policymakers face. Its Education Policy Center conducts research on education reforms involving accountability, school vouchers, standards, after-school programs, technology, teacher quality, and the new increased flexibility in using federal funds. The Urban Institute created the indicator for graduation rates used in this study (the Cumulative Promotion Index), conducted all data analysis contained in this report, and contributed to preparation of the narrative.

Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) Founded in 1971, AFC is New York's leading educational advocacy and legal services organization. Our mission is to make sure that New York's children get access to a quality and appropriate education. AFC does this work through direct service, training, policy reports, impact advocacy and information dissemination. In the past 33 years, we have helped hundreds of thousands of New York City children obtain the resources they need to succeed in school. For this report AFC reached out nationally to document the individual and systemic stories about why children are being pushed out or dropped out of school.

Results for America is a project of the nonprofit Civil Society Institute, (CSI) which is based in Newton, Massachusetts. The mission of the Institute is to serve as a catalyst for change by creating problem-solving interactions among people, and between communities, government and business, that can help to improve society. A key goal of Results for America is to shape and tap the tremendous amount of community-level knowledge, experience and innovative action that could solve America's problems in education under its initiative on Great Kids, Great Schools, Great Communities. Results for America supports investing in public schools, making sure parents have more of a say in their schools and creating conditions that will lead to learning and success for every child. CSI is supporting the efforts to disseminate this report in order to bring more voices and perspectives, particularly those of students, into the debate about the costs and benefits of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.


In an increasingly competitive, global economy the consequences of dropping out of high school are devastating to individuals, communities and our national economy. At an absolute minimum, adults need a high school diploma if they are to have any reasonable opportunities to earn a living wage. A community where many parents are dropouts is unlikely to have stable families or social structures. Most businesses need workers with technical skills that require at least a high school diploma. Yet, with little notice, the United States is allowing a dangerously high percentage of students to disappear from the educational pipeline before graduating from high school.

Nationally, high school graduation rates are low for all students, with only an estimated 68% of those who enter 9th grade graduating with a regular diploma in12th grade. But, as the table below makes clear, they are substantially lower for most minority groups, and particularly for males. According to the calculations used in this report1, in 2001, only 50% of all black students, 51% of Native American students, and 53% of all Hispanic students graduated from high school. Black, Native American, and Hispanic males fare even worse: 43%, 47%, and 48% respectively.

National Graduation Rates By Race and Gender

By Race/Ethnicity Nation Female Male

American Indian/AK Nat 51.1 51.4† 47.0†
Asian/Pacific Islander 76.8 80.0† 72.6†
Hispanic 53.2 58.5 48
Black 50.2 56.2 42.8
White 74.9 77 70.8

All Students 68 72 64.1

To make matters worse, official "dropout" statistics neither accurately count nor report the vast numbers of students who do not graduate from high school. For a variety of reasons that are detailed later in this report, the two major sources used most often - the Center for Educational Statistics and the Current Population Survey - to calculate dropout and graduation rates produce misleading figures. Moreover, because states rarely disaggregate graduation rates by race or socio-economic status, the extremely low graduation rates for racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, low-income students, and students with limited English proficiency subgroups are rarely the focus of debates on education reform. As a result, the public remains largely unaware of this national crisis.

Low Graduation Rates for Students With Disabilities
According to data reported by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), graduation rates for students with disabilities are just over 32%. Another 11% no longer identified as needing special education services which means that they became fully mainstreamed students without an Individualized Educational Plan (LEP). Even if all of those students who were no longer listed as having a disability earned regular diplomas, that would still mean that only 43% of students identified as in need of special services earn a high school diploma. Six states (Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida) graduate under 25% of students with special needs. Yet, despite these deeply alarming figures, there is little to no publicly reported data on graduation rates for this subgroup at the district level.

Sources: Education Week, Quality Counts 2004 Citing U.S. Department of Education Office for Special Education Programs. See State Pages for more information on New York.

This report seeks to highlight these disparities to draw the public's and policymakers' attention to the urgent need to address this educational and civil rights crisis. Using a more accurate method for calculating graduation rates developed by the Urban Institute (see discussion on p. 8) we provide estimates of high school graduation rates, distinguished at the state and district level, and disaggregated by race. We assert that these figures provide a far more realistic portrait of graduation rates in this country than those commonly reported by states and the federal government.

Our analysis of this data focuses on three major questions: First, how deep and widespread are the racial disparities that exist at the state and district levels? Second, how has the misleading and incomplete reporting of this issue obscured both the magnitude of the crisis and its racial dimensions? Finally, focusing primarily on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, we ask whether state and federal accountability systems, as implemented, are appropriately structured to improve high school graduation rates, especially among children of color.

Woven throughout this report are narratives about students from a sampling of states—Alabama, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Mississippi—who have either dropped or felt "pushed" out of school (some are in the 15 state review). Several of these stories illustrate the "dark side" of high stakes testing policies. Many of these students and their families express shock and dismay when they are told they will not be allowed to return to school or to graduate because of their poor test performance. Some were conscientious and hard-working, had done well in their classes and had made plans to pursue post-secondary education. Others had experienced severe problems outside of school, but still expressed interest in continuing their education. Yet, they found themselves stranded in an educational no-man's land with few options or advocates. Collectively, these stories suggest that there may be "perverse incentives" in many states to push low-performing students out the back door. If true, without more powerful incentives for schools to "hold onto" students through graduation, the "push-out syndrome" is likely to grow more severe.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University would like to thank its extraordinary administrative team, including Marilyn Byrne, Lori Kelley, and Christina Tobias-Nahi for their valuable assistance with this report. A special thanks to Laurent Heller for his significant technical contributions in finalizing the appendices and tables with great skill and patience. We would also like to thank Carolyn Peele, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and Atlantic Philanthropies for their support of these efforts.

Advocates for Children of New York thanks all of its staff who work on this important issue and, in particular, would like to thank Sarah Hechtman for her work in gathering the student narratives in this report.

The Urban Institute acknowledges the help of Kendra Bischoff, Jane Hannaway, and Stuart Kantor in this project.

All three organizations thank The Civil Society Institute for supporting this effort to merge in depth data with real world stories so that the public is better informed about the graduation rates among young people in this country.

Topics/Tags: | Education | Governing | Race/Ethnicity/Gender

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