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Dropout Rates in the United States, 1996


          This is the ninth annual dropout report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This year’s report spans the 25-year time period from 1972 through 1996, and focuses primarily on updates to annual time series data. Data from the October 1996 Current Population Survey (CPS) of the U.S. Bureau of the Census are used to compute national high school dropout and completion rates disaggregated by by sex and race–ethnicity, income levels, and regions of the country. State-level data from the CPS are used to produce estimates of high school completion rates by state. In addition, NCES data from the Common Core of Data (CCD) are used to provide estimates of dropout rates by state.


Addressing the Problem

          Young adults who leave school short of high school graduation face a number of potential hardships. Past research has shown that, compared with high school graduates, relatively more dropouts are unemployed and those dropouts who do succeed in finding work earn less money than high school graduates.1 High school dropouts are also more likely to receive public assistance than high school graduates who do not go on to college.2 This increased reliance on public assistance is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that young women who drop out of school are more likely to have children at younger ages and more likely to be single parents.3

          Secondary schools in today’s society are faced with the challenge of increasing curricular rigor to strengthen the knowledge base of high school graduates, while at the same time increasing the proportion of all students who successfully complete a high school program. Reform advocates call for more effort devoted to linking schooling to the future, with an emphasis placed on high school graduates as skilled learners with the ability to continue their education and skills acquisition in college, technical school, or work-based programs.4

          The pressures placed on the education system to turn out increasingly larger numbers of qualified lifelong learners have led to an increased interest in the role that alternative methods of high school completion may play in helping some students meet these goals. At this point, most students pursuing an alternative to a regular diploma take the General Educational Development (GED) tests, with the goal of earning a high school equivalency credential.

GED as an Alternative

          Over the 25-year period covered by this report, approximately 17 million people took the GED tests and about 10 million, or 60 percent, received a high school equivalency credential based on the GED tests.5 At this point about three-quarters of a million people take the GED test each year and nearly a half million test-takers receive a GED credential. A passing score is set nationally by the test administrator at the American Council on Education. Individual states set their own passing scores at or above the minimum requirement. Effective January 1, 1997, this minimum passing score was raised to a new standard which is met by only 66 percent of graduating high school seniors.6

          Anyone age 16 or older who is out of school without a high school diploma can register and take the GED tests. Although no formal preparation is required, many applicants attend classes to help them prepare for the tests. These preparatory classes are available in a number of settings—many cable and public television stations carry a GED preparation program; alternatively, more formal programs are available through federally funded Adult Secondary Education (ASE) programs, through secondary vocational education programs, and increasingly through schools serving at-risk youths.7

          Historically, the GED was established as a means of providing a high school credential to World War II veterans who may have interrupted their schooling to go to war. Since that time the GED has been viewed as a second-chance program for people who failed to graduate from a regular high school program. Seemingly in contradiction with these programmatic goals, data on GED test-takers show that while the average age of GED test-takers is about 26, over the last quarter century one-third of the test-takers have been ages 16 through 19.8

          In recent years, research into the adult outcomes for GED credential holders, as compared to dropouts on the one hand and regular diploma recipients on the other, has fueled a debate over the value of the GED credential. There is conflicting evidence in the research literature concerning the effects of a GED credential on labor force participation, employment, earnings, wage rates, postsecondary program participation, and persistence in postsecondary programs.9

          These conflicting findings have led some to question the efficacy of promoting GED programs for youths who are still young enough to participate in regular high school programs. Clearly, this debate points to the need for more research into the characteristics of youths following each of these three paths, and into the lifelong outcomes of the members of these three groups. This debate also highlights the need to monitor the characteristics and the relative size of the groups of dropouts, high school graduates, and alternative completers.


[1] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Condition of Education 1996 (Washington, D.C.: 1996), Indicators 32 and 34. Back to the Text

[2] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Condition of Education 1996 (Washington, D.C.: 1996), Indicator 36. Back to the Text

[3] In M. McMillen and P. Kaufman, Dropout Rates in the United States: 1994 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 96-863, 1994).Back to the Text

[4] U.S. Department of Education, Raising the Educational Achievement of Secondary School Students: An Idea Book (Washington D.C.: Planning and Evaluation Service, 1995). Back to the Text

[5] U.S. Department of Education, The Digest of Education Statistics 1996 (Washington D.C.: NCES 96-133, 1996), table 100. Note data for U.S. outlying areas are included in these counts. Back to the Text

[6] American Council of Education, Test of GED, Technical Manual (Washington, D.C.: GED Testing Service, 1993). Back to the Text

[7] U.S. Department of Education, Goal 2 High School Completion—What Do We Need to Know? (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1996). Back to the Text

[8] U.S. Department of Education, The Digest of Education Statistics 1996 (Washington D.C.: NCES 95-029, 1996), table 100. Back to the Text

[9] See, for example, R.J. Murnane, J.B. Willet, and K.P. Boudett, "Do high school dropouts benefit from obtaining a GED?" Education and Policy Analysis 17(2): 133–47; Iowa Department of Education, What has happened to Iowa’s GED graduates? A two-, five-, and ten-year follow-up study (Des Moines: State of Iowa Department of Education ED 344-047, 1992); J. Baldwin, I.S. Hirsch, D. Rock, and K. Yamamoto, The Literacy Proficiencies of GED Examinees: Results from the GED-NALS Comparison Study (Washington D.C. and Princeton, NJ: The American Council on Education and the Educational Testing Service, 1995). Also for a detailed review of the literature, see D. Boesel, N. Alsalam, and T. Smith, Educational and Labor Market Performance of GED Recipients (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Library of Education, forthcoming). Back to the Text


List of Figures Previous Contents Contents Event, Status, and Cohort Dropout Rates

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