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Is the U.S. High School Graduation Rate Worse Than We Thought?

That’s the assertion made by James Heckman and Paul LaFontaine in a new working paper called “The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels.”

Here is their abstract:

This paper uses multiple data sources and a unified methodology to estimate the trends and levels of the U.S. high school graduation rate. Correcting for important biases that plague previous calculations, we establish that (a) the true high school graduation rate is substantially lower than the official rate issued by the National Center for Educational Statistics; (b) it has been declining over the past 40 years; (c) majority/minority graduation rate differentials are substantial and have not converged over the past 35 years; (d) the decline in high school graduation rates occurs among native populations and is not solely a consequence of increasing proportions of immigrants and minorities in American society; (e) the decline in high school graduation explains part of the recent slowdown in college attendance; and (f) the pattern of the decline of high school graduation rates by gender helps to explain the recent increase in male-female college attendance gaps.

The National Center for Educational Statistics typically states that the U.S. graduation rate is 88 percent, and that the black/white gap has virtually disappeared. But Heckman and LaFontaine argue that the actual graduation rate is in fact considerably lower, and that the black/white gap hasn’t gone anywhere: “In fact,” they write, “we find no evidence of convergence in minority-majority graduation rates over the past 35 years.”

The only people I can think of for whom this paper represents good news are:

1. People who work in the G.E.D. business.
2. Whites who are eager for minorities to remain educationally diminished.
3. Immigrants who can find good work because of a lack of educated natives.
4. Anyone in the education field who wants to improve things using good, hard data rather than suppositions, opinions, and prayers.