Rick Santorum incorrectly claimed that “one of three children drop out of school” in the United States. The 2009 dropout rate was 8.1 percent — slightly higher than it was in 2008, but down significantly from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and even early 2000s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
It’s true that a higher percentage of students in the U.S. fail to graduate on time — about 23 percent in the 2009-10 school year. But that’s still not “one of three children” and that doesn’t account for the many who take longer to graduate or who pass the General Educational Development (GED) tests, accepted by nearly all colleges and universities as evidence of high-school equivalency. The fact is that only 8.1 percent fail to graduate or get a GED by age 24. And by any measure you pick, the dropout rate has been generally declining for years.
Santorum, who is currently ahead in the national polls for the Republican presidential nomination, criticized the U.S. public education system as a “failure” on “Face the Nation.” He compared it unfavorably to the kind of individualized education that home-schooled children, such as his own, receive. He repeatedly referred to what he called “these high rates of dropouts.”
Santorum, Feb. 19: And we can do better than a system that one in three children drop out of school. If that is the hallmark, Bob, that you talk about as a– as a great society, when one of three children drop out of school and a lot of the folks who don’t drop out of school still can’t read at grade level, that to me is a failure and defending that failure is not something I’m planning on doing which is what the president does.
The Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics measures dropout rates in a variety of ways. The most commonly used measure is called the “status dropout rate,” which is defined as the percentage of people between ages 16 and 24 who are not in school and do not have high school diplomas or GEDs. That rate was 8.1 in 2009, the most recent data available on the NCES website.
In fact, the “status dropout rate” has been steadily declining over the years — from 15 percent in 1970, 14.1 percent in 1980, to 12.1 percent in 1990, to 10.9 percent in 2000, to 8.1 percent in 2009. It was largely unchanged from 8 percent in 2008.
The center also measures the “event dropout rate,” which is the percentage of public school students in grades 9 through 12 who dropped out of school “between one October and the next.” In 2007-2008, the rate was 4.1 percent.
We’re not sure where Santorum got his figures. His campaign did not respond when we asked. But we suspect he is referring to a February 2005 report by the Educational Testing Service called “One-Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities.” That report said “one-third of those who enter our high schools do not graduate,” citing two independent studies from 1998 and three from 2000.
In addition to the independent studies, the ETS report cites as evidence another measure developed by the NCES, which is labeled “graduates as a ratio of the 17-year-old population” (as of October of the school year). But using this calculation still doesn’t back up Santorum’s claim. The rate in 2009-10 was 76.7 percent — the highest it has been since 1969-70, when the rate peaked at 76.9 percent (as ETS correctly noted on page 8 of its report). Also, this rate does not include students who take more than four years to finish high school and those who successfully obtain GED certificates instead of diplomas.
— Eugene Kiely