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Studies Decry Faulty Graduation Data, Rising Dropout Rates

By Alan Richard & Debra Viadero — July 08, 2005 4 min read
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A pair of recent reports suggests that high school graduation rates may be worse than they appear in the South and across the United States.

The studies came separately last month from the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based compact of 16 states, and the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

The reports, “Getting Honest About Grad Rates: How States Play the Numbers and Students Lose,” from the Education Trust and “Getting Serious About High School Graduation,” from the Southern Regional Education Board have been posted.

The Education Trust report, released June 23, contends that states in all regions of the country calculate graduation rates in ways that understate dropout problems. The report also criticizes states for setting low targets for improving graduation rates under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and the federal government for letting them do so.

Falling graduation rates in many Southern states, the SREB report says, may threaten the region’s progress in improving student test scores, access to preschool, and other advances. The report says rates in that region dropped by 5 percentage points from 1992 to 2002, while the overall national graduation rate dropped 2 points, to about 70 percent.

“Our achievement’s going up, but our graduation rate is going down in many places,” Gene Bottoms, the SREB’s senior vice president, said June 27 in New Orleans at the group’s annual meeting. Some Southern campuses “in some ways look very much like third-world-country high schools,” he added.

The SREB researchers arrived at their 5-percentage-point figure by using a dropout-counting method devised by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a think tank in New York City. It was one of four commonly used methods the researchers employed to calculate graduation rates for the organization’s member states, from Texas to Delaware. By all those methods, though, the report notes, graduation rates in many states across the South are low and declining.

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Using the Manhattan Institute formula, for instance, the report found that rates plummeted from 1992 to 2002 in some states. Tennessee’s graduation rate fell by 13 points during that decade, Georgia’s and Alabama’s dropped 10 points, and South Carolina’s and Delaware’s declined by 8 points each.

All but three of the 16 SREB states saw graduation rates drop over that time, the report says. Rates climbed by 4 points in Louisiana, 3 points in Texas, and 1 point in Oklahoma.

Both studies highlight the need for all states to use agreed-upon methods for counting dropouts and graduates.

States are required to report their graduation rates, beginning with the 2002-03 school year, under the No Child Left Behind law. Yet, both reports say, most states lack sophisticated student-tracking systems that would allow for more-accurate statistics.

Methods Disparaged

While some states are putting such systems in place now, the Education Trust says, others have reported “implausibly high” graduation rates or used “ludicrous” methods to calculate them. One example the report points to is New Mexico, where state officials report a 90 percent graduation rate. The report says the state counts high school seniors who receive diplomas—a method that ignores the numbers of students who drop out in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade.

Likewise, the report says, the 97 percent graduation rate that North Carolina reports is based only on the percent of actual graduates who received their diplomas in four years or less.

“We’ve got to end this rampant dishonesty about graduation rates,” Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, said in a statement. “And it would sure help if the U.S. Department of Education stopped sitting on the sidelines and worked to put an end to these shameful practices.”

But the report was wrong to suggest that states are “playing with the numbers,” when most don’t have the common data sets to provide better counts, said Scott S. Montgomery, the chief of staff for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

The Education Trust’s report also says that three states—Alabama, Louisiana, and Massachusetts—did not report graduation rates at all to the federal government. Another seven states failed to break down the data, as required under No Child Left Behind, to show separate graduation rates for certain groups of students, such as those with disabilities, from low-income families, and from racial and ethnic minorities.

Policymakers at the SREB conference said the group’s findings were particularly distressing because several member states already had some of the nation’s lowest graduation rates. Rates are even lower, according to the SREB report, for minority students.

“The dropout rate is a very, very real problem,” said state Sen. Hob Bryan, a Democrat from Mississippi. Only about 60 percent of students in his state graduate on time, and the state’s rate fell 4 points from 1992 to 2002.

“You’ve got to have more rigorous standards and you’ve got to lower the dropout rate at the same time,” he said, “and one without the other is unacceptable.”

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