College & Workforce Readiness

Paige Seeks to Address Thorny Graduation Data

By Jeff Archer — January 07, 2004 3 min read
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Amid continuing criticism over student-data issues, Secretary of Education Rod Paige has announced plans to convene a national panel of experts to make recommendations on the reporting of high school graduation rates.

Rod Paige, seen here at a December press conference, plans to tackle thorny graduation-data issues.

Rod Paige, seen here at a December press conference, plans to tackle thorny graduation- data issues.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week

Under a contract with the Department of Education, the nine-person group will begin meeting later this month to review the varied ways in which high school completion rates are calculated.

The effort comes as Secretary Paige has stepped up his defense of the Houston school district, where he served as the superintendent from 1994 to 2000, and where problems in tracking student dropouts have prompted some to call into question the achievements of the 210,000-student system.

Meanwhile, a new report from the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, has accused the Education Department of failing to ensure that states provide accurate information on how many of their students are completing high school, as called for in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank in New York City, and a member of the new study group, said the panel could bring much-needed consistency to the methods that states use in producing a critical indicator of school performance.

“It’s a good thing that NCLB has this in it,” he said. “The bad thing has been that NCLB has been fairly vague about what states need to provide as a graduation or dropout rate.”

Tracking such data is tricky business. Many states lack systems that can follow individual students as they move in and out of schools, and officials thus rely on other methods to estimate the number of students who complete high school.

Recent cases of disputed data also suggest that many schools may not be providing state officials with correct counts of graduates and dropouts. News that a Houston high school altered its dropout data has prompted intensive scrutiny of the district’s claims of success. (“Houston Case Offers Lesson on Dropouts,” Sept. 24, 2003.)

In some of his most extensive comments on the matter to date, Mr. Paige argued last month that Houston has been unfairly singled out for political reasons.

“Some people think they can damage the process of national reform and defeat the No Child Left Behind law by striking out at Texas and the Houston Independent School District,” he said in a Dec. 15 speech to the Greater Houston Partnership.

‘We Mean Business’

But the efforts to implement the 2-year-old federal law at the national level also have come under fire. In its Dec. 22 report, the Education Trust argues that federal officials have allowed states to use methods that don’t conform to the law’s requirement that schools be accountable for the number of students they graduate, on time, with regular diplomas.

To show how the various formulas used by states produce different results, the group compared graduation rates reported by states with rates calculated using a method that Mr. Greene of the Manhattan Institute has used. North Carolina, for example, claimed a graduation rate of 92.4 percent, while Mr. Greene found it to be 63 percent.

The federal Education Department disputed the claim of lax oversight in a statement responding to the report. Many states, including North Carolina, have been told by federal officials they must upgrade their data collection in the coming years to produce more consistent numbers.

“We mean business,” acting Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok said in the statement. “No state has gotten a pass.”

Slated to produce a report by late this spring, the new federal panel was assembled under a federal grant to the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, a nonprofit group based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

In addition to Mr. Greene, the study group includes: Barbara Bailor, a former senior vice president of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago; Duncan Chaplin, a senior researcher with the Urban Institute, a Washington research organization; John Q. Easton, the director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research; Bobby Franklin, the director of planning, analysis, and information resources at the Louisiana education department.

Also named to the panel are: Patricia Harvey, the superintendent of the St. Paul, Minn., schools; Robert Hauser, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Janet Norwood, a former director of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Department of Labor; and Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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