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Dropout Rates in the United States: 2004

NCES 2007-024
November 2006

Selected Findings: National Event Dropout Rates

The event dropout rate presented here estimates the percentage of both private and public high school students who left high school between the beginning of one school year and the beginning of the next without earning a high school diploma or its equivalent such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Specifically, the rate describes the percentage of youth ages 15 through 24 in the United States who dropped out of grades 10–12 from either public or private schools in the 12 months between one October and the next (e.g., October 2003 to October 2004). The measure provides information about the rate at which U.S. high school students are leaving school without a successful outcome. As such, it can be used to study student experiences in the U.S. secondary school system in a given year. It is not well suited for studying how many people in the country lack a high school credential irrespective of whether they attended U.S. high schools, nor does it provide a picture of the dropout problem more generally because it only measures how many students dropped out in a single year. Data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) are used to calculate national event dropout rates.

  • National event dropout rates: About 5 out of every 100 students enrolled in high school in October 2003 left school before October 2004 without completing a high school program (table 1). Since 1972, event dropout rates have trended downward, from 6.1 percent in 1972 to 4.7 percent in 2004 (figure 1 and table 2). This decline occurred primarily from 1972 through 1990. Despite year-to-year fluctuations, there has been no overall pattern of increase or decrease in event dropout rates since 1990.
  • Event dropout rates by sex: There was no measurable difference in the 2004 event dropout rates for males and females, a pattern generally found over the last three decades (tables 1 and 3). Exceptions to this pattern occurred in 4 years—1974, 1976, 1978, and 2000—when males were more likely than females to drop out.
  • Event dropout rates by race/ethnicity:5 Among the four largest racial/ethnic groups shown in table 1, Hispanic students were the most likely to drop out in 2004 (8.9 percent), followed by Black students (5.7 percent), White students (3.7 percent), and Asian/Pacific Islander students (1.2 percent).6 The rate for students who indicated more than one race (4.9 percent) was not measurably different from the rates for the other racial/ethnic groups.7
  • Event dropout rates by family income: In 2004, the event rate for students living in low-income families was approximately four times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (10.4 percent compared with 2.5 percent) (table 1)8

    A decline in event dropout rates for students from low-, middle-, and high-income families occurred from the mid-1970s to 1990 (figure 1 and table 4). Since 1990, event dropout rates have fluctuated between 3.6 and 5.7 percent for middle-income students and between 1.0 and 2.7 percent for high-income students, without a consistent upward or downward trend for either group (table 4). However, for low-income students, event dropout rates increased from 9.5 percent in 1990 to 13.3 percent in 1995 and then declined to 10.4 percent in 2004.
  • Event dropout rates by age: Students who pursue a high school education past the typical high school age are at higher risk than others of becoming an event dropout (table 1). The 2004 event dropout rates for students in the typical age range for fall high school enrollment (ages 15 through 17) were lower than those for older students (ages 19 through 24). Specifically, 4.0 percent of 15- to 16-year-olds and 3.1 percent of 17-year-olds dropped out in the 1-year reference period, compared with 7.6 percent of 19-year-olds and 28.2 percent of 20- through 24-year-olds.9
  • Event dropout rates by region: In 2004, the West and the South registered a higher event dropout rate than the Northeast and the Midwest (6.1 percent, 5.4 percent, 3.8 percent, and 3.1 percent, respectively) (table 1). It is not appropriate to consider these rates as reflecting the performance of schools in each of the regions. There are a number of reasons the rates cannot be used to directly evaluate school system performance including lack of controls for migration and immigration.

5 Beginning in 2003, CPS respondents were able to indicate more than one race. Only 2 percent of 15- through 24-year-olds who were enrolled in high school in 2003 (the base population for the 2004 event dropout rate) reported more than one race (table 1). The tables reporting data for 2004 include five racial/ethnic categories: White, non-Hispanic; Black, non-Hispanic; Asian/Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic; Hispanic; and more than one race. The first three categories consist of individuals who identified as only one race, and who did not identify as Hispanic. A fourth category consists of Hispanics of all races and racial combinations. The “more than one race” category consists of non-Hispanics who identified as being multiracial. Due to small sample sizes, American Indians/Alaska Natives who reported only one race are included in the total but are not shown separately. The CPS tables with data from 1972 to 2004 have two race classification schemes. For the 2003 and 2004 data, the race categories follow the definitions described above for 2004. Prior to 2003, respondents could indicate only one race. The four racial/ethnic categories reported in this publication for 2002 and earlier data are White, non-Hispanic; Black, non-Hispanic; Hispanic (any race); and Asian/Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic. American Indians/Alaska Natives are included in the totals but are not shown separately. For ease of reading, the shorter terms White, Black, and Asian/Pacific Islander are used.

6 The differences between each of these groups were statistically significant.

7 Due to a small sample size, the standard error for students who identify with more than one race is relatively large, which makes the detection of statistically significant differences difficult.

8 “Low-income” is defined here as the lowest 20 percent of all family incomes, while “high-income” refers to the top 20 percent of all family incomes. In 2004, low-income families included those with $16,333 or less in family income, while high-income families included those with $77,235 or more in family income.

9 Eighteen-year-olds represent a transitional population in terms of high school education. Many are still in high school, while a large proportion has entered postsecondary education or the labor market (U.S. Census Bureau 2005b). As such, they are not included with those who are age 17 and under, or age 19 and over, in this analysis.


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