College & Workforce Readiness

Report Faults Calif. on Graduation Calculation

By John Gehring — March 29, 2005 4 min read
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California overstates the number of students graduating from high school and should use more accurate measures for tracking dropouts, a study released last week contends.

“Confronting the Graduation Crisis in California,” a 14-page analysis by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, argues that misleading reporting of dropout and graduation rates has provided a skewed picture of how many students are graduating in the state and around the nation.

“Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in California” is available from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. ()

Like many states, California uses a “flawed National Center for Education Statistics formula that dramatically underestimates the actual number of dropouts,” according to the March 24 report, which includes work by researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities, the Urban Institute, and the University of California system.

Gary Orfield, the director of the Civil Rights Project, said the federal center, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, relies on states to report graduation and dropout figures, even though they are far from reliable.

“Most schools don’t really know when students transfer, and they have no incentive to report that students have dropped out,” said Mr. Orfield, who is a professor of education and social policy at Harvard’s graduate school of education. “Both state and federal governments need to step up to the plate to get accurate data.”

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View the accompanying item,

Chart: California Graduation Rates

While federal lawmakers recognized the need to pay more attention to dropouts by including graduation-rate accountability measures in the No Child Left Behind Act, the report says, federal education officials have not been vigilant about enforcing those measures.

“One of our most serious concerns isn’t just about more accurate reporting,” said Daniel J. Losen, a senior education law and policy associate at the Civil Rights Project. “We need much better accountability for graduation rates. State after state, district after district, we have extremely lax accountability. Our focus is entirely on test scores.”

‘Promotion Index’

While California reported a strong overall graduation rate of 86 percentin 2002, researchers for the new study say the figure does not match reality.

Among other problems, schools and districts often lose track of students, and classify students who never receive diplomas as having successfully transferred to other schools. In some cases, the researchers note, even students who have ended up in prison are not counted as dropouts.

A more accurate way of tracking high school graduation rates, according to the report, would be to use the actual enrollment data that the nation’s school districts provide each year to the Common Core of Data, the primary database for the federal Department of Education.

The study highlights a “cumulative promotion index” that uses such data, developed by Christopher Swanson, a research associate with the Washington-based Urban Institute, as a more precise tool to measure graduation rates.

Using the index, the report says, the graduation rate for California students in 2002 would be 71 percent, slightly above the national average.

The model tracks students moving from grade to grade at the district and state levels, and allows for comparisons across years, districts, and states. The report also recommends providing every student with a “single lifetime school identification number” that would allow students to be tracked throughout an entire school career.

Richard Miller, the director of communications for the California education department, said the state agrees that the most accurate way to measure the extent of the dropout problem is to have a student-identification system.

Lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have supported such a step, he said, and the state hopes to have a system working in about a year.

Black and Latino students in California, according to the Harvard analysis, are three times more likely than white students to attend a high school where graduation is not the norm.

In the 740,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, researchers from the University of California system found that only 48 percent of black, Latino, and Native American students who started 9th grade in 1998 had graduated four years later.

Jose Huizar, the president of the Los Angeles board of education, acknowledged the need to better measure graduation and dropout rates.

“It would help if we had more accurate data,” he said during a telephone news conference last week. “We provide a huge disservice to our students if we don’t have that data.”

Creating smaller high schools to replace industrial-era facilities serving several thousand students, Mr. Huizar added, is one way the district can keep students engaged in school and prevent them from dropping out.

“A more personalized approach to education, so students will have more contact with adults, will go a long way,” he said.

The report includes information on 15 California high schools that “beat the odds” by graduating higher-than-expected percentages of students.

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