Food For Thought

Three Out Of Four Will Graduate. Success or Failure? 

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

Public schools have many ways of determining success or failure. Today’s prevalent mode is standardized student testing. Each testing scheme’s goal is to determine which students have met graduation criteria. All parents want their children to graduate and envision their children walking across the stage to receive high school diplomas. Many parents will not see this because many children, for various reasons, drop out of the educational system. Will more emphasis on testing improve the dropout statistics?

Educational Systems Will “Cook the Books”

The Houston, Texas, school system was recognized by President Bush as an educational model for decreasing the student dropout rate through high student expectations and standards. Houston’s success was one of the focal points of the President’s “no child left behind” initiative. Houston reported a dropout rate of 1.5 percent in the year 2000-2001. The public has since discovered that students were improperly classified in an effort to lower the dropout rate.

Dr. Rod Paige, secretary of education who was the superintendent of the Houston public schools, should have known that these numbers were derived by “cooking the books.” Most educators could tell you that a 1.5 percent dropout rate is very difficult to obtain even in a very affluent school system. Bonuses for Houston educators were tied to the school dropout rates and test scores, which encouraged statistical manipulation. Schemes to encourage students with poor academic records to drop out of school also inflated the standardized scores.

The Virginia Dropout Record

The Virginia Department of Education Web site provides information on the dropout rates in Virginia’s public schools. If you look at the dropout tables for the various school systems you see that the dropout percentage ranges from 0 percent to 5.47 percent. The state average is 2.02 percent, which appears to be a good number until you look a little closer. That average is derived from a school population consisting of grades 7-12. How many seventh- and eighth-graders drop out? Most students leave school in the upper grades; so including seventh- and eighth-graders artificially lowers the dropout percentage. It’s a form of cooking the books. What the public should be more concerned about is the graduation rate, and that statistic shows a much different picture of educational success.

Virginia’s average high school graduation rate is 75 percent. One in four students won’t make the trip across the stage to receive the coveted diploma. The statistics for different ethnic groups are: African-American, 66 percent; Asian, 86 percent; Hispanic, 62 percent; white, 78 percent. The national average is 69 percent. Virginia’s graduation rate ranks 18th and the dropout rate of 3.9 percent ranks eighth. Virginia’s rankings are acceptable when compared to other states, but in my view these statistics just cover up the failure of education to meet the needs of too many students. More and better testing schemes alone won’t lower the dropout rate.

Behavior Risk Categories

There are four major categories of risky behavior in late childhood and adolescence: (1) drug and alcohol use and abuse; (2) unsafe sex, teenage pregnancy, and teenage parenting; (3) school underachievement, school failure, and dropout; and (4) delinquency, crime and violence (Dryfoos, 1990).

Involvement in one or more of these categories of behavior can very adversely impact a child’s life. The school is only one of the parties that can determine a child’s risk in each category. Failure in school can certainly lead to a child’s increased risk in other categories; but most likely the home environment plays the primary role in preventing the child from straying down one of these paths. Increasing school academic requirements without addressing the other risk factors will contribute little to improving the graduation rate. To accomplish the goal of having more students completing 12 years of education, society needs to concentrate on behavior problems as well as academic performance.

Finding a Better Way

Today’s children’s lives are complex and don’t easily fit the old school model of “one size fits all.” Virginia offers some variation in diploma offerings; Standard Diploma, Advanced Studies Diploma, Special Diploma, Certificate of Completion, GED, ISAEP, and Modified Standard Diploma. Ninety-three percent of the students who graduate complete a Standard or Advanced Studies diploma. The number of modified standard diplomas is very small. In my view the diploma is just one step in a lifelong commitment to learning. The first 12 years are just that, 12 years. Our goal should be to keep students in school for 12 years and to provide some type of evaluation of achievement that will help them continue their education in a variety of ways. College is just one of many educational options.

Ensuring that students complete 12 years of schooling beyond kindergarten should be the goal of public education. At the end of 12 years, students should be given some document that denotes their achievement. A system that in any way encourages the student to drop out, for whatever reason, is a system that has failed both the student and society. If a college diploma is obtained at age 30 versus age 22, do we consider the graduate a failure? Why do we look at kids who don’t complete all educational requirements by the age of 18 as failures? We need to have a system that continues to track them and offer additional education opportunities in conjunction with work opportunities. Schools do a poor job following up on students, both graduates and dropouts.

Obtaining the elements of education is more important than when they are obtained. The “when” should be viewed more like a path made with a wide paint brush than a path made by a fine-point pen. George Johnson, former president of George Mason University, told a faculty member when asked why the university was offering a given degree that, “It’s a large tent that can cover many animals.” I think a high school diploma should be the same, and cover the needs of many kids. Making the graduation standards tough is easy. Finding the answer to the dropout problem is far more difficult. 

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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