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Alarming High School Dropout Rates: Virginia is Not Immune

Under-reported by the media and ignored by political leaders at all levels is the alarming high school dropout rate that still plagues America. It is a scandal that will continue to burden the nation – economically and socially – for years to come.


Here are the hard facts. Every school day some 7,000 students drop out of school. Annually, that adds up to about 1.2 million students who will not graduate from high school with their peers as scheduled. According to the U.S. Department of Education and the Manhattan Institute, the national high school graduation rate is just 69.9 percent. Nationally, the graduation rate for white students was 78 percent, compared with 72 percent for Asian students, 55 percent for African-American students and 53 percent for Hispanic students.


A recent study found that the D.C. graduation rate fell to 48.8 percent in 2006. Comparable numbers for Maryland show a graduation rate of 73.5 percent while Virginia’s sit at 69.2 percent.


Most alarming is the dichotomy between urban and suburban schools. The District is not alone. Seventeen of the nation’s 50 largest cities had high school graduation rates lower than 50 percent. In Baltimore, for example, researchers found that 34.6 percent of city school students graduate, compared to 81.5 percent of the public school students in Baltimore’s suburbs.


Accurate data is hard to come by. Historically, states used different methodologies from determining student attendance. Under President Bush, the U.S. Department of Education last year ordered states to use a standard formula for calculating their dropout/graduation rates by 2013.


The Virginia Department of Education’s data show that Arlington County’s dropout rate for students with limited English proficiency is significantly higher than the statewide average, with 37 percent of these members of Arlington’s class of 2008 dropping out of school before graduation. At Wakefield High School, 42 percent of the students with limited English proficiency dropped out of school before graduating. Half of all Hispanic students in the class of 2008 dropped out of school.


Out of the nation’s 50 largest school districts, Fairfax County Public Schools ranked the fifth highest with a graduation rate of 80.4 percent in 2004. But the county also experienced an eight-point drop in the percentage of students finishing high school from 1995 to 2004, according to a report in The Connection newspapers.


Failure to finish high school not only disadvantages the student, but society pays a price as well. Failing to earn a high school diploma means one will be far more likely to spend one’s life periodically unemployed, on government assistance or cycling in and out of the prison system. Consider the following:

  • Dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than high school graduates and more than eight times as likely to be incarcerated.
  • Nationwide, 68 percent of state prison inmates do not have a high school diploma. There is data showing a 10 percent increase in graduation rates has historically reduced murder and assault rates by approximately 20 percent.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in February 2009 the national unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma was 4.3 percentage points higher than those who had graduated from high school.
  • The U.S. Department of Education reports that students from low-income families are six times more likely to drop out of high school than students from high-income families.
  • One study in 2001 found that women who gave birth during their teens completed secondary-level schooling 10 to 12 percent as often and pursued post-secondary education 14 to 29 percent as often as women who waited until age 30.
  • The national average annual income for a high school dropout in 2005 was $17,299, compared to $26,933 for a high school graduate, a difference of $9,634. Nationally, high school dropouts were also the only group of workers who saw income levels decline over the last 30 years.
  • Children of parents who graduate from high school are themselves far more likely to graduate from high school than are children of parents without a high school diploma.
  • High school dropouts are more likely to receive public assistance than graduates and are less likely to have health insurance and a pension or retirement program.

The dropout rate is highest in public schools, followed by private schools. Some studies suggest that Catholic schools experience the lowest non-graduation rate of any school type, usually less than 5 percent.


Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich along with activist and onetime presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton have jointly called education “the first civil right of the 21st Century.” A high school diploma for every young American, particularly minorities and new immigrants, should become a national priority.

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