When Leon Pumphrey became a father at age 16, he thought dropping out of high school in Baltimore to support his child was the responsible thing to do.
But with only a ninth-grade education, Pumphrey spent much of his adult life jobless and on welfare, became addicted to drugs and alcohol and eventually served 10 years in prison for armed robbery.
"I made a choice to quit school, yeah, but I didn't know it was going to be like this," said the 46-year-old Pumphrey, now seven months sober and taking classes towards his GED, or high school equivalency certificate, which he hopes will turn his life around.
Whether teens drop out of school because of unplanned pregnancy, boredom or academic failure, the likelihood they'll end up on a path similar to Pumphrey's increases dramatically without a high school diploma.
Educators and elected officials alike now are facing up to the fact that the failure to complete high school imposes a heavy cost not only on the dropouts themselves, but on everyone.
Consider these statistics gathered by Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University:
- Adults without a high school diploma are twice as likely to be unemployed.
- They will earn $260,000 less over a lifetime than a high school graduate.
- Dropouts make up nearly 70 percent of inmates crowding state prisons and at least half those on welfare.
- Their life expectancy is 9.2 years lower than that of high school graduates.
- The average 45-year-old dropout is in worse health than the average 65-year-old high school graduate.
"Frankly, there's been this attitude that dropouts hurt themselves most. But this is a hurt that goes through society, leading to huge public costs in terms of crime, welfare assistance, health care and lost taxes," Levin said.
The past year has seen unprecedented attention paid to the shortcomings of America's high schools, prompting national leaders to pledge to transform high school and toughen graduation standards. But that means little to the nearly one-third of high school students who fail to meet current standards and don't graduate on time.
Responding to a National Governors Association (NGA) initiative, many states have adopted more rigorous course requirements for graduation. Nearly half of the states now require seniors to pass high-stakes exams before receiving diplomas.
Politicians hope this will boost student achievement and restore the value of a diploma. But some advocates fear raising the bar will force kids at the bottom - mostly low-income and minority students - to drop out at even higher rates.
Graduation rates already are significantly worse for boys than girls, and nearly half of Hispanic, African-American and Native American students never receive a high school diploma. The odds of graduating are less than 50-50 for students in high schools in major cities across the United States, including Baltimore.
There's scant evidence yet to determine how high school reforms will affect graduation rates, but most education experts agree the nation's dropout problem cannot be improved until states address one major issue: their failure to accurately track how many students who start high school actually graduate.
There are no national standards for measuring graduation rates and no federal oversight to make sure states report accurate graduation data, said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
As a result, many states ignore students who drop out before the senior year when they calculate high school completion rates, resulting in inflated graduation rates. States have reported an average graduation rate exceeding 80 percent in recent years, far higher than independent measures, which estimate that the graduation rate is barely 70 percent.
"In effect, (states) report whatever numbers they like, however they want to report them, and there's nobody outside checking to see if these are true or accurate," said Finn, whose foundation promotes charter schools and vouchers.
Sometimes the rates are inflated by counting GEDs and other alternative diplomas. However, using the number-of-freshman and number-of-seniors method, the National Center for Education Statistics calculates that 74 percent of public school students graduated on time in 2002-2003. The rates ranged from a low of 58 percent in South Carolina to a high of 86 percent in New Jersey.
The Education Trust charges that many states fudge dropout data. The organization, which supports stiffer standards for all students, said only Alaska and Washington state reported realistic dropout rates in 2003. Alaska reported that only 67 percent of the ninth-grade class that started four years earlier were among its graduating seniors, and Washington state counted 66 percent.
Washington state Superintendent of Schools Terry Bergeson said parents and school officials were shocked to learn the severity of the state's dropout problem when the method was first used in 2004. "We're taking some heat for our honesty, but it's a wake-up call," Bergeson said.
States strongly resisted attempts in the 1980s to adopt national graduation rates, but last year all 50 governors signed a pledge to adopt uniform graduation standards.
The governors agreed to immediately begin calculating graduation rates by dividing the number of graduating seniors by the number of ninth-graders four years earlier. The National Governors Association (NGA) will monitor and report on states' progress in implementing the goals.
"If we're going to focus on fixing our high schools, we've got to have a common definition for accurately measuring graduation rates," said former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who championed high school reform as NGA chairman in 2004.
Skeptics point out that it is up to the state education department, not the governor, to set standards for collecting education data. The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents the heads of state education departments, has conspicuously refused to endorse or comment on the governors' plans.
Building more accurate data-collection systems will be costly, and reporting accurate dropout rates will be politically painful, said Jay Smink, director of the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University.
Smink said he was "not very optimistic" that the governors can produce numbers accurate enough for the federal government to use as a tool to enforce No Child Left Behind standards.
Even if they do, there will still be a lot of pressure on districts or principals to intentionally fudge the data, he said.
Back in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush sat down with the 50 governors in Charlottesville, Va., to fashion the first national education goals, one of the lofty targets they set was a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2000.
By anybody's measure, states came nowhere close.
Editor's note : This story failed to note that the initiative to raise high school standards attributed to the National Governors Association was co-sponsored by Achieve Inc ., an independent, nonprofit organization made up of governors and business leaders. Also, this online excerpt from Stateline.org's "State of the States 2006" report has been updated to delete the written report's statement that Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) was the only governor not to sign a compact to adopt national graduation rates in July 2005. Ehrlich signed the compact in December 2005, the last governor to do so.