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Public High School Dropouts and Completers from the Common Core of Data: School Years 1991-92 through 1997-98

  Introductory Material
Section A
Section B
   1997–98 Dropouts and Completers
Section C
   Dropouts: Changes Over Time by Selected Characteristics
Section D
   High School Completers: Trends and Selected Characteristics
Section E
   Basic Tables
Section F
   Technical/Methodological Issues
   Additional Tables
PDF File (1,026 KB)

Lee Hoffman

Section A. Introduction

  1. Background
  2. Defining Dropouts and Completers
  3. Limitations in This Report
  4. Contents of This Report

Two of the most important indicators of the educational system's success are the number of young people who complete high school and the number who drop out of school each year. The National Center for Education Statistics' Common Core of Data (CCD) survey system annually collects information about dropouts and completers. This report presents the number and percentage of students dropping out of public schools (among states that reported dropouts) for school years 1991–92 through 1997–98, and the number and percentage of students completing school for school years 1995–96 through 1997–98.

I. Background

The CCD consists of six surveys that are completed each year by state education agencies. Three of these surveys provide basic statistical information about public elementary/secondary institutions, students, and staff. Although all information is reported directly from state education agencies (SEAs), the surveys include data about individual states, local education agencies, and schools. The numbers of students who complete high school with a regular diploma or some alternative credential have been reported at the state and local education agency levels since the 1987–88 CCD collection. A dropout statistic was added to the Local Education Agency (School District) Universe in the 1992–93 collection (reporting 1991–92 dropouts).

The CCD is a good source of national data about public high school dropouts and completers. First, the survey uses standard definitions that allow equitable comparisons among states and districts. Second, the CCD includes the full universe of local education agencies and schools. And, finally, the data are reported annually.

Developing a dropout statistic. NCES surveyed SEAs in 1987 and found wide disparities in dropout statistics-both which students were considered to be dropouts and how dropout rates were calculated. Because the dropout rate was an important topic in education policy discussions, the absence of comparable data was considered a serious problem. In 1989, the agency began work with state CCD survey coordinators to develop a standard dropout statistic that was incorporated in the 1992–93 school year CCD collection. (Dropout statistics are reported the year after students have left school; hence this first collection produced information about 1991–92 school year dropouts.)

Collecting the dropout statistic through the CCD survey system determined in part how the statistic was defined. The CCD data are derived from the administrative records that states maintain for the daily operation of public schools. The surveys are collected once each year. Almost all statistics reflect conditions at the beginning of the school year, giving a "snapshot" picture that accounts for every student in public schools in each state. In order to be comparable with the CCD membership count, dropouts for a school year are reported at the beginning of the next school year. The CCD dropout count reports the number of students dropping out in a single year, and defines a dropout basically as a student who had been enrolled in the previous school year but who was not enrolled (and was not a graduate) at the beginning of the current school year. The dropout rate is calculated by comparing the number of students reported as dropouts for a given school year with the number enrolled at the beginning of that school year. In 2000, NCES determined that states following a July-through-June reporting calendar rather than the October-through-September calendar did not have an appreciable effect upon the numbers of dropouts reported for a school year and began accepting them.1

The dropout rate is the number of dropouts divided by the number of students enrolled. For example, to compute the 9–12th grade dropout rate the calculation is:

Number of 9–12th grade dropouts
October 1st 9–12th grade enrollment count

The dropout rate was a high-stakes statistic for local education agencies and states. This led NCES to publish data from only those states that complied exactly with the standard definition. For the 1991–92 school year, NCES published data for 12 of the 45 states that reported dropouts; by 1997–98, this had increased to 37.2

Developing a high school completion rate. Although the CCD collected statistics on the numbers of high school completers each year, these data did not produce a completion rate. The survey's annual "snapshot" format did not indicate which students took more than 4 years to complete high school, nor which school districts experienced net growth or decline in enrollment over 4 years because of population changes.

In 1997, CCD staff proposed a high school four-year completion rate developed in collaboration with state CCD Coordinators that was based on the numbers of students leaving school. The states and NCES tested multiple rates and decided on a rate that tried to incorporate 4 years worth of data (see the methodology section for more details). Put simply, this rate asks, "of those students who have left school, what proportion have done so as completers?" It is calculated by dividing the number of high school completers by the sum of dropouts for grades 9 through 12, respectively, in consecutive years, plus the number of completers. If a hypothetical graduating class began as 9th graders in Year 1, this four-year completion rate would look like:

High School Completers Year 4
Dropouts (Grade 9 Year 1 + Grade 10 Year 2 + Grade 11 Year 3 + Grade 12 Year 4)
+ High School Completers Year 4

This report is the first publication of a high school four-year completion rate based upon CCD dropout and completion data. Because it requires several years of dropout data, the high school completion rate is given for 1995–96 and subsequent years while dropout rates are presented beginning with 1991–92. (See the methodology section for more details on the rates.)

II. Defining Dropouts and Completers

Determining dropout status. The CCD definition determines whether an individual is a dropout by his or her enrollment status at the beginning of the school year (the same day reflected in the enrollment count). In 1990, NCES defined a dropout as an individual who:

  1. Was enrolled in school at some time during the previous school year (i.e., 1995–96);
  2. Was not enrolled at the beginning of the current school year (i.e., 1996–97);
  3. Has not graduated from high school or completed a state- or district-approved educational program; and
  4. Does not meet any of the following exclusionary conditions:
    1. transfer to another public school district, private school, or state- or district-approved educational program (including correctional or health facility programs);
    2. temporary absence due to suspension or school-excused illness; or
    3. death.
Individuals who complete 1 year of school but fail to enroll at the beginning of the subsequent year ("summer dropouts") are counted as dropouts from the school year and grade in which they fail to enroll. Those who leave secondary education but are enrolled in an adult education program at the beginning of the school year are considered dropouts. However, note that dropout status is determined by a student's status on October 1. Students who receive their general education development (GED) test certificate by October 1 are not counted as dropouts if the state or district recognizes this as an approved program. Although a student whose whereabouts is unknown is considered a dropout, states are not required to count students who leave the United States as dropouts even if there is no information about such students' subsequent enrollment status. A student can be counted as a dropout only once for a single school year but can, if he or she repeatedly drops out and re-enrolls, appear as a dropout for more than 1 year.

The CCD dropout statistic is reported at the local education agency level for grades 7 through 12. Data are aggregated for male and female dropouts within each of five racial/ethnic categories for every grade.3

High school completion categories. The CCD collects three types of high school completion credentials: regular diplomas, equivalency diplomas, and other completion credentials such as certificates of attendance. Only regular diploma recipients and other high school completers are included in this report, for reasons that are discussed below.

Diploma recipients are individuals who are awarded a high school diploma or a diploma that recognizes some higher level of academic achievement. They can be thought of as students who meet or exceed the coursework and performance standards for high school completion established by the state or other relevant authorities.

Other high school completers receive a certificate of attendance or some other credential in lieu of a diploma. Students awarded this credential typically meet requirements that differ from those for a high school diploma. Some states do not issue an "other high school completion" type of certificate, but award all students who complete school a diploma regardless of what academic requirements the students have met. In order to make data as comparable as possible across states, this report includes both regular and other diploma recipients in its high school four-year completion rate.

Exclusion of high school equivalency recipients. High school equivalencies are awarded a credential certifying that they have met state or district requirements for high school completion by passing an examination or completing some other performance requirement. The equivalency certificate is usually awarded on the basis of the GED test. The CCD asks states to report high school equivalency recipients who are in roughly the same cohort as the regular graduating class, that is, 19 years of age or younger. Although students who receive their GED by October 1 are considered in the dropout rate calculation, there are two reasons that GED counts are not included in the count of high school completers in the four-year completion rate. First, the count of high school equivalencies is only reported on the CCD's state collection and the other data collected and used in the four-year completion rate are at the school district level. Second, not all states report the total number of GED recipients.

III. Limitations in This Report

The high school four-year completion rate presented here differs in its calculation from other published rates, and readers should be alert to this when making comparisons with other studies. The inclusion of regular and other high school completions, and the exclusion of GED recipients, may also lead to differences with other reports.

It should be noted that the number of states reporting dropouts almost tripled over the 7 years included in this report. Because of this, comparisons over time should be made cautiously. Finally, the effects of state and local policies and data collection administration may have profound effects on the number of dropouts and completers in a state. Dropout and completion data collected by the CCD are reported from the administrative records of state education agencies. Some states collect their data through student-level records systems while others collect aggregate data from schools and districts. Although state CCD Coordinators verify each year that they have followed the CCD dropout definition, states vary in their ability to track students who move from one district to another and it is probable that some students have been misclassified.

IV. Contents of This Report

NCES has reported CCD-based dropout rates since 1992 and is introducing, with this publication, a high school four-year completion rate that incorporates both dropout and completion data. In future years, these rates will be reported annually with other CCD statistics.

The next section of the report discusses in detail the numbers of high school dropouts and completers in the 1997–98 school year. It is followed by an analysis of dropout rates and then high school four-year completion rates over time among students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds and from school districts serving different community types (example, rural, suburban, urban). A closing methodology section provides more information about the dropout and completion statistics and the CCD collection and editing practices.


1 Winglee, M., Marker, D., Henderson, A., Young, B., and Hoffman, L. 2000. A Recommended Approach to Providing High School Dropout and Completion Rates at the State Level. NCES 2000?305.

2 CCD respondents include the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the outlying areas (American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Totals in this report are limited to the 50 states and the District of Columbia, referred to collectively as "the states."

3 The categories are American Indian/Alaska Native; Asian; Black, not Hispanic; Hispanic; and White, not Hispanic.

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