Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Counting dropouts

Looking at my town's high school's 2007–2008 "report card" this morning, I see an overall graduation rate of 88.8% (62.1% for economically disadvantaged students) and a dropout rate of 3.1%. How to account for the missing 8.1%? I don't know. But a 2008 New York Times article makes clear that accurate numbers for graduation and dropout rates have been difficult to come by, with widespread undercounting of dropouts. Why? No Child Left Behind made possible a variety of ways to calculate graduation rates:

In 2001, the year the law was drafted, one of the first of a string of revisionist studies argued that the nation's schools were losing more students than previously thought.

Jay P. Greene, a researcher at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research organization, compared eighth-grade enrollments with the number of diplomas bestowed five years later to estimate that the nation’s graduation rate was 71 percent. Federal statistics had put the figure 15 points higher.

Still, Congress did not make dropouts a central focus of the law. And when states negotiated their plans to carry it out, the Bush administration allowed them to use dozens of different ways to report graduation rates.

As an example, New Mexico defined its rate as the percentage of enrolled 12th graders who received a diploma. That method grossly undercounts dropouts by ignoring all students who leave before the 12th grade.

The law also allowed states to establish their own goals for improving graduation rates. Many set them low. Nevada, for instance, pledged to get just 50 percent of its students to graduate on time. And since the law required no annual measures of progress, California proposed that even a one-tenth of 1 percent annual improvement in its graduation rate should suffice.

Daniel J. Losen, who has studied dropout reporting for the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he once pointed out to a state official that, at that pace, it would take California 500 years to meet its graduation goal.

"In California, we're patient," Mr. Losen recalled the official saying.

States Data Obscure How Few Finish High School (New York Times)
In 2008, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings began requiring states to use a common formula to calculate dropout and graduation rates. Read more:

U.S. to Require States to Use a Single School Dropout Formula (New York Times)

comments: 1

Elaine Fine said...

Perhaps the 8.1% has something to do with teen pregnancy: women who don't graduate and hope, perhaps, to get a GED eventually.