Most of the major claims in the president's speech were either based on highly selective reading of the data or were simply wrong.
This brings us to one of the strangest aspects of the education debate: the way it makes smart, conscientious people act grossly out of character. Consider this representative example from FactCheck:
But the claim that "our high school dropout rate has tripled in the past thirty years"? That’s not even in the ballpark. According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the "status dropout rate" – 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 – was 9.3 percent in 2006. In 1976, 30 years before that, it was 14.1. That’s actually a 34 percent decrease in the high school dropout rate.
Of course, dropout rates are notoriously hard to measure and compare. For instance, while NCES shows a status dropout rate of 9.3 in 2006, the high school completion rate for that year was only 74.8 percent. Why the discrepancy? Instead of counting people of a certain age with a diploma or equivalency certificate, this figure compares the number of high school freshman in a certain year to the number receiving a high school diploma four years later. Those who take more than four years to finish aren’t counted, nor are students who get GEDs instead of diplomas. But using this calculation still doesn’t back up Obama’s claim. The dropout rate – that is, the discrepancy between incoming freshmen and graduates – would have been 25.2 percent in the 2006-2007 school year. The rate in 1976-1977 was 25.6 percent.
Even pessimistic accounts don’t show a tripled dropout rate. According to a report by the Educational Testing Service, titled "One Third of a Nation" after the number of students they say are high school dropouts, high school completion rates peaked at 77.1 percent in 1969 and dropped to 69.9 percent in 2000. (NCES shows higher numbers in both years.);That would put dropout rates at 22.9 and 30.1 percent respectively – a 30 percent increase over 31 years. As many sixth-graders could tell you, tripling would mean a 200 percent increase.
So where did Obama’s figure come from? A White House spokesman pointed us to a report by the College Board, which said: "The rate at which American students disappear from school between grades nine and 12 has tripled in the last 30 years." But the College Board’s report included a mistake, which it later corrected: The rate really refers to what happened between grades nine and 10. More important, however, it is not really a "dropout rate." The College Board report in turn cites a 2004 study by the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, which actually shows a tripling of the attrition rate between grades nine and 10, not the dropout rate. In other words, the difference between the number of students enrolled in grade nine in one year and the number enrolled in grade 10 the next year has increased threefold. At the same time, there has been a corresponding threefold increase in grade nine enrollments relative to grade eight. The report shows more ninth-graders failing that grade, not dropping out.
Given that the reform movement has been railing against social promotion for years, it's hard to argue that an increase in students held back is a cause for alarm.