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By Sean Gorman May 6, 2011

Rep. Scott says 12 percent of high schools produce half of nation's dropouts

U.S. Rep Bobby Scott cited a staggering statistic when he announced he was introducing a measure to curb the high school dropout rate.

"Nearly 2,000 high schools - roughly 12 percent of all secondary schools in the United States - produce about half of the nation’s dropouts," Scott, D-3rd, said in an April 7 news release.

Is it true that such a small percentage of the nation’s high schools have such a large impact on the country’s dropout problem?

Scott’s office directed us to a 2007 report by Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and a widely quoted expert on the dropout issue.

Based on 2006 data, the report classified 1,999 high schools across the nation as "low performing." Balfanz said these schools, representing about 14 percent of the nation’s regular and vocational high schools enrolling 100 or more students, reliably produced 50 percent of America’s dropouts. He dubbed them dubbed "dropout factories."

An even greater share of the nation’s minority dropouts came from these schools: 81 percent of Native Americans; 73 percent of African-Americans and 66 percent of Latinos. They were attended by 34 percent of the white dropouts.

Scott accurately characterized the numbers in the report. But the study is several years old and we wanted to take an updated look.

Balfanz re-examined the issue with other researchers in a 2010 report titled "Building a Grad Nation." Using U.S. Department of Education figures, the authors found the number of the country’s worst-performing schools had fallen from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008.

The study was co-sponsored by the America’s Promise Alliance. Co-founded by retired Army General and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the non-profit group has proposed a "Civic Marshall Plan" to increase the number of students completing high school.

A March 2011 update of the "Building a Grad Nation" study found that in 2009, the latest year statistics are available, the number of dropout factories fell yet again to 1,634.

Those 1,634 low-performing schools represent about 10 to 12 percent of the nation’s high schools and still produce about half of the nation’s drop outs, said Colleen Wilber, a spokeswoman for the America’s Promise Alliance.

Every state has at least one "dropout factory," which Balfanz defines as a school in which at least 40 percent of freshmen fail to make it to their senior year. For high schools that only have grades 10-12, his reports examine how sophomore year enrollment compares to the senior year.

The reports do not identify any of the troubled schools by name. The largest number are in the South. Virginia had 29 of them in 2009, 25 in 2008, and 26 back in 2002.

Scott’s bill -- also introduced in the Senate by Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa -- would strengthen regulations developed in 2008 that require states to use the same formula in reporting high school graduation rates. It would set a national graduation rate goal of 90 percent. The national high school graduation was 74.9 percent in 2008, the last year data was available.

To sum up:

Scott said that nearly 2,000 high schools, about 12 percent of those in the U.S., produce half the nation’s dropouts.

He accurately cited a report based on 2006 data. An updated study found the number of low-performing schools dropped to 1,634 in 2009.  That does not diminish Scott’s point that a small percentage of high schools have an enormous impact on the nation’s dropout problem.

We rate Scott’s claim True.   

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Our Sources

News releasefrom U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, April 7, 2011.

E-mail from Larry Dillard, aide to U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, April 13, ,2011.

"Building a Grad Nation" study, November, 2010.

"Building a Grad Nation: 2010-2011 Annual Update," March, 2011.

E-mail from Amy Lunday, senior media relations representative for social sciences at Johns Hopkins University, April 27.

Presentation by Robert Balfanz, "Locating and transforming the low performing high schools which produce the nation’s dropouts," August, 16, 2007.

Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center website, accessed May 3, 2011.

America’s Promise Alliance website accessed May 3, 2011.

Report from the National Governors Association’s Center for best Practices, "Achieving Graduation for All,"2009.

Report by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, "The School Dropout Crisis," 2006.

Johns Hopkins University report, "Locating the Dropout Crisis," September, 2004.

Educational Testing Service study, "One-Third of a Nation," 2006.

Article in the Frontiersman in Wasilla Alaska, "WHS not ‘dropout factory,’" November 3, 2007.

Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools website,accessed April 27, 2011.

CNN article, "Report: Fewer U.S. High Schools are ‘Dropout Factories,’" March 22, 2011.

PBS NewsHour article, "U.S. Schools Make Progress, but Dropout Factories Persist," November 30, 2010.

American Youth Policy Forum issue brief, "Every Nine Second in America a Student Becomes a Dropout," accessed April 27, 2011.

Everyone Gradates Center report, "Raising Graduation Rates: A Series of Data Briefs," accessed May 4, 2011.

U.S. Department of Education report, "A Uniform, Comparable Graduation Rate," October, 2008.

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Rep. Scott says 12 percent of high schools produce half of nation's dropouts

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