Linda Chavez
What would the media do without manufactured crises? From global warming to bird flu to the obesity epidemic, news magazines, cable shows and local television news rush from one hysteria to the next in their attempt to entice readers and viewers.

The latest non-story to make headlines involves high school dropouts, what Time dubbed "Dropout Nation" in a recent cover story. "The number of high school students who leave before graduating is higher -- much higher -- than you think," the magazine breathlessly intones. But the story fails to provide much evidence of this new catastrophe.

Although Time claims "an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly 1 out of 3 public high school students won't graduate," and points to research that maintains that "for Latinos and African Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50 percent," the facts the magazine musters to support the allegations are sparse and misleading.

Education statistics -- especially those involving individual school graduation rates -- are particularly difficult to assess. Americans are among the most mobile populations in the world. On average, almost one in five American families moves each year, sometimes within a city or state, but about 6 percent move out of state. Tracking whether or not an individual student graduates from a particular high school, then, becomes very difficult.

Time's cover story, for example, focuses on one high school in Middle America, Shelbyville High School near Indianapolis. "Of the 315 Shelbyville students who showed up for the first day of high school four years ago, only 215 are expected to graduate," the magazine notes. "The 100 others have simply melted away, dropping out in a slow, steady bleed that has left the town wondering how it could have let down so many of its kids." But if Shelbyville is typical of other American towns, many of those 100 students have simply changed schools because their parents moved.

Time recounts a few anecdotal examples of Shelbyville dropouts, including former students who went on to earn General Educational Development (GED) diplomas and attend college, and one student who earned his degree while incarcerated. But anecdotes don't prove much, and they certainly can't constitute evidence of a national trend.

Even statistics reported by high schools or local education agencies are notoriously unreliable. The best data come from national surveys such as the Current Population Survey taken each month by the U.S. Census Bureau. The CPS sample is made up of about 50,000 households and is considered one of the most comprehensive data sources in the nation.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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