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Politics & Policy: Various Ways of Calculating Dropout Rate Leaves Subject Open to Much Interpretation
By June Kronholz
As states and the federal government look for ways to define what it means to be a failing school and how to patch up what ails it, they are looking ever closer at dropout rates.
So, suppose you want to know how many youngsters in your state finish high school. Would you use the federal government's yearly "event dropout rate," or its multiyear "status" or "cohort" rates? Would you look at the "attrition rate," one of four numbers that Texas calculates for different policy purposes, or "holding power," one of two that Maryland reports?
Would you use the completion or the graduation rate, and does it matter if someone takes six years to finish school?
So it goes with the efforts to set more rigorous school standards, where test scores, attendance figures, teacher quality and dropout rates now are hugely important to everyone -- yet almost no one can agree what and how to measure, or even what the numbers mean.
Huge Education Bill
In the huge education bill expected to pass Congress Tuesday, all 50 states for the first time will be required to look at graduation rates, among other things, when determining whether their high schools meet new yearly progress goals. Schools with chronically low test scores and graduation rates face sanctions that range up to a takeover by private managers.
As taxpayers, governors, employers and parents increasingly hold their schools accountable for student performance, the dropout rate is becoming an important indicator of a school's success. How good could a school be if half of its students never graduate, the argument goes.
Twenty-three states already use graduation or dropout rates to help decide which schools share in reward money or face overhauls.
But just as the states don't agree on what to ask in a reading test or what it takes to pass a math test, they don't agree on how to calculate dropout rates. The U.S. Department of Education, which will spend about $22.5 billion on K-12 schools next year, doesn't compel the states to report their dropout rates at all, and still won't despite the new bill. The states decide what measures to use. When the department calculated dropout rates most recently, only 37 states reported their numbers, and only 27 of those used the standards and definition the department asked them to use.
This year, Standard & Poor's, the credit-rating company, started a project to bring some marketplace rigor to school-district records so that legislators, businesses and taxpayers could better calculate their state's return on its education investment. So far, the project has signed up Michigan and Pennsylvania, but even they haven't agreed on a definition of a dropout. Michigan's definition is anyone "who cannot be accounted for."
"You could talk to 10 people and get 10 different definitions," says Kathy Christie, research analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks school trends.
The dropout rate is important, even aside from measuring how well a school does its job, because dropouts earned only about half of what high-school graduates earned in 1999, the Census Bureau reports. Dropouts also are more likely to go on welfare, land in prison or become single parents.
'Event' Dropout Rate
Last month, the Education Department reported that 4.8% of the students in grades 10 through 12 dropped out between October 1999 and October 2000 -- what it calls its "event" dropout rate. That means that over the 10th through the 12th grades, 14.4% -- or about one youngster in seven -- who enters 10th grade drops out. And that doesn't count those who drop out earlier. Schools say youngsters start dropping out as early as grade seven.
At the same time, the department also reported that about one person in nine between ages 16 and 24 wasn't in school, didn't have a diploma and hadn't passed a high-school equivalency test like the General Educational Development exam. That number, which the department calls the "status" dropout rate, looks at the total number of people without a high-school education or equivalency. The department said that 87% of 18- through 24-year-olds had finished high school or passed the GED. It calls that the completion rate. All three rates are based on statistical surveys.
As with test scores, the department's dropout numbers mask huge differences among kids based on race, gender and wealth. Youngsters from the poorest families are six times as likely to drop out than those from the richest; 11 boys drop out for every eight girls; 64% of Hispanic youngsters complete school -- the lowest figure for a racial or ethnic cohort -- compared with 92% of whites.
A few days before the Education Department report, Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York-based think tank, released even more doleful numbers. Dr. Greene looked at the 1993 figure for eighth graders enrolled, a head count that school districts report to the Education Department each year as part of their funding requests. Then, he compared it with the number of diplomas awarded in 1998, when those youngsters should have graduated. He excluded GED holders, whose career prospects aren't much different from dropouts, arguing they shouldn't count as evidence of a school's success.
Cleveland and Milwaukee
After allowing for children who change schools, he concluded that the graduation rate in 1998 was 74% nationally, which means one in four youngsters dropped out. In four states, the graduation rate was 60% or less, and he found other wide disparities among various groups and locations. Dr. Greene reported that 78% of Ohio youngsters graduated, but in Cleveland, only 28% did -- the lowest rate he found for any city in the country. Wisconsin graduated 93% of its white students, but by contrast Milwaukee graduated only one-third of its blacks. In eight states, fewer than half the Hispanics graduated; in two states, it was only one-third.
Dr. Greene's research was done for a group that supports school vouchers, which let children attend private schools at public expense. There are voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Education Department officials who have reviewed his findings don't dispute them, though.
The dropout picture gets even fuzzier when it gets to each state's calculations. Texas, for one, tracks its students by computer, and can follow them as they move from school to school. Texas didn't give its statistics to the Education Department, which can't confirm them. But Texas says it has a 1.3% yearly event-dropout rate. (It computes the rate three other ways for different policy purposes.) That is about one-half the North Dakota rate, which the department says is the nation's lowest.
Other states reject student tracking, either because of privacy concerns or because school districts fear the loss of power to the state if they surrender so much information. "Less than a handful" of states have some sort of tracking system, says the Education Commission's Ms. Christie, but without it, a state's dropout number "isn't going to be very accurate."
Maryland uses one of its dropout-rate calculations as a factor in deciding whether to sanction a school for poor performance. But because of local-control arguments, there is no statewide student database. Maryland instead depends on the districts to report their dropout rates. But finding if children have moved or dropped out isn't easy, and the districts have few resources to go looking.
Schools and districts also have incentives to put the best light on their numbers. "It's possible to cook dropout statistics," says the Manhattan Institute's Dr. Greene. An unsuccessful ballot measure last year in Michigan proposed that children in any school district that didn't graduate two-thirds of its students be given a private-school voucher. During the debate, Detroit schools reported their graduation rate jumped from 30% to 68% in one year. Both numbers are under review.
©2001 The Wall Street Journal
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