Education Opinion

Too Soon to Celebrate Rising Graduation Rate

By Walt Gardner — December 15, 2010 3 min read
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The media are declaring victory in the war on high school dropouts in the wake of the release of a report by America’s Promise Alliance showing that the graduation rate has begun to rise after hitting rock bottom at the end of the 20th century. But let’s not uncork the champagne just yet.

To understand the reasons for this guarded appraisal, it’s necessary to peel back the layers of statistical legerdemain that for too long characterized the way data were collected and reported on this controversial issue.

Determining the rate at which students drop out is a straightforward matter for most people. Quantify the number of students who enter high school as freshmen and then repeat the process four years later. Compare the two for the answer. In fact, that’s essentially the way the rate was ascertained.

But this simplistic method was always misleading. For one thing, it didn’t take into account students who left the state or enrolled in private or religious schools. The growth of the school choice movement, in particular, has distorted the results. So although students didn’t graduate from the same school in which they were initially enrolled, they hardly warranted the scarlet letter.

For another, the metric didn’t factor in students who earned their high school diploma in five years, instead of the customary four. This number is increasing because social promotion is being phased out. Students now must show mastery of stipulated knowledge and skills. It also led some states to inflate their rate by counting dropouts who later earn a G.E.D. as graduates.

In light of these realities, “Building a Grad Nation,” which claims that the national graduation rate climbed to 75 percent in 2008 from 72 percent in 2001, needs to be viewed with caution. It still bases its results on a formula that compares a school’s 12th-grade enrollment with its 9th-grade enrollment three years before. Schools that show a decline are called dropout factories. According to the study, these schools decreased to 1,750 in 2008 from 2,000 in 2002.

The data reported also need to be considered in light of a policy called credit recovery. It allows students who lack sufficient credits for graduation to make them up by means other than retaking a class or attending summer school. There’s nothing wrong with this practice, but it may lead taxpayers to draw invalid inferences about the dropout rate.

Principals in some high schools also allow struggling students to make up missed work through online courses, which roughly a third of the states have endorsed in the last few years, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center. Although most states still require students to complete a stipulated number of hours of seat time (what is known as Carnegie units of credit) and demonstrate subject competency, alternate strategies are becoming more common.

To establish taxpayer confidence that a high school diploma means what it says, the U.S. Department of Education is pushing for the use of one federal formula for all of the nation’s 25,000 public high schools. The aim is to eliminate the crazy quilt system so that every state is calculating the graduation rate the same way. California can serve as a model. Starting in 2006, all students were issued an identification number that stay with them throughout their schooling in the same way that a Social Security number stays with all workers throughout their careers.

Critics argue that uniform standards will exacerbate matters by making it harder for students to graduate. But research has shown that stiffening requirements has actually improved graduation rates. Dropouts say that they want to be challenged, but their classes leave them disengaged.

However, this claim is not borne out by the experience in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest. In 2003, the district instituted a policy requiring all students to pass 9th-grade algebra in order to receive a diploma. The challenging course, which is considered the gateway to college, triggered more dropouts than any single subject.

I believe dropouts are really saying they want courses that have relevance to their future plans. That’s why I’ve long called for greater emphasis on vocational education. The curriculum is directly geared to the needs and interests of students who have no interest or aptitude in going to a four-year college.

Quantifying graduation rates accurately and fairly is crucial at this crossroads in education history. It’s understandable why some states have obscured data to avoid embarrassment. But the stakes are too high to allow the practice to continue.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.