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About Dropout and Completion Rates



American schools are letting students slip through the cracks. More students are dropping out today than dropped out 25 years ago.


When the grandparents of today’s students entered adulthood, about half of the population (ages 25 through 29) had completed high school. Today, the figure exceeds 86%.

The proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds failing to complete high school or earn a diploma through alter-native means decreased from 14.5% in 1990 to just over 11% in 1996. When completion rates for upper secondary education (roughly high school) and higher education are combined, the United States ranks above all G-7 countries. These include the United States, Germany, Japan , France, the United Kingdom, Canada , and Italy and are among the most highly developed nations.

Bottom line

Dropout rates have declined and completion rates have increased. In terms of international comparisons,American schools are far ahead of almost all developed nations in providing a higher level of education for every citizen. (Note: The following chart provides completion rates.)

Proportion of 18 to 24 year-olds who completed highschool

For the future

While the gap between whites and people of color completing high school is nar-rowing, it is still significant, especially for Hispanics. Research is needed to determine the effectiveness of the GED as a means of judging skill mastery. For those who may not know, the GED is a test that can be taken as an alternative means of earning a high school diploma. Finally, a completion rate of 86% is not satisfactory. It still leaves many adults, especially those in large cities and poor rural areas, without the skills and training needed to succeed. Continued improvement must be sought.

Reliable information regarding completion and dropout rates comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, a unit of the U.S. Department of Education.

You can access "Trends Among High School Seniors,1972-1992" directly through the Department of Education, or you can be linked to it through PDK's web site.

Specific fast facts

  • The proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds completing high school or qualifying through the GED increased from just under 83% in 1972 to more than 86% in 1996.
  • The proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds not completing high school or earning a GED decreased from 14.5% in 1990 to just over 11% in 1996.
  • Among G-7 countries, the percentage of the 25- to 64-year-olds in 1992 for whom upper secondary education (roughly equivalent to high school) was the highest grade completed was 60% in Germany, 53% in the United States, 49% in the United Kingdom, 48% in Japan, 36% in France, 30% in Canada, and 22% in Italy. When completion rates for upper secondary education and higher education for 1992 were combined, the United States, with 84%, ranked above all G-7 countries.
  • Among the 22 developed nations studied by NCES in 1992, the 31% of those in the age 25-64 group in the United States who had completed higher education was topped only by the 41% in Canada. The percentages for other G-7 countries included 16% for France, 22% for Germany, 6% for Italy, 21% for Japan, and 19% for the United Kingdom.
  • In 1996, about 86% of all 18- through 24-year-olds not still enrolled in school had completed a high school program. Whites and blacks registered increases in this rate in the 1970s and 1980s, with 1996 rates of 91.5% for whites and 83% for blacks. Blacks have made great improvement and this gap continues to narrow. Hispanics have not shared in this improvement; in 1996 only 62% of Hispanics 18 to 24 years old reporting having completed high school.
  • Economic status is directly related to high school completion. Ninety-six percent of young adults in families with high incomes held high school credentials in 1996, while only about 75% of those from low-income families reached this goal.
  • While the percentage of young adults holding a high school credential has remained near 86% in the 1990s, the method of credentialing has changed. The percentage holding an alternative certification has doubled from 4.9% in 1990 to 9.8% in 1996, and the percentage holding regular diplomas has decreased by the commensurate amount. Most of the alternative certification has been accomplished through the General Educational Development (GED) test.
  • The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who have completed high school (by graduation or alternative means) varies by the region of the country. In 1996 it was 90.4% in the Midwest, 89.5% in the Northeast, 84.1% in the South, and 82.8% in the West.

Note: There are three ways of viewing dropout rates. Event rates describe the proportion of students who leave school each year without completing a high school program. Status rates provide cumulative data among all young adults in a specified age range. Cohort rates measure what happens to a specified group of students over a period of time. This FastFacts issue relies primarily on status rates.

Additional copies of this article may be purchased from Phi Delta Kappa for $5.00 per 50.

Perspectives on current issues in education from Phi Delta Kappa International, 408 N. Union, P.O. Box 789 Bloomington, Indiana 47402-0789 812/339-1156 800/766-1156 fax: 812/339-0018 E-mail: headquarters@pdkintl.org www.pdkintl.org 2/98