The state bends figures from schools to avoid federal funding cuts.
How often do people lie and then, in the same breath, admit that they’re lying? That’s just about what the California Department of Education did recently when it announced a statewide graduation rate of 86.9%, a figure that even its own experts admit is way off base. But the state isn’t the only one at fault here — California concocted a make-believe graduation rate in order to comply with a poorly designed requirement in the new federal education law.
“We suspect that dropout counts are underreported,” said Donna Rothenbaum, an education consultant for the state, even as the 86.9% figure was being released a few weeks ago. Rothenbaum volunteered that California’s real graduation rate is about 70%. That estimate is confirmed by an earlier report from the state’s Educational Demographics Office — still available online — that shows the graduation rate to be 69.6%.
The 86.9% figure was calculated by counting the number of students who started ninth grade, then subtracting the number of dropouts in each subsequent year and comparing the two figures. This method is accurate when it’s carried out with precision, but in practice it has produced shoddy numbers because keeping track of every student who leaves school is a logistical nightmare.
By contrast, the 69.6% figure was calculated with enrollment data. State officials simply compared the number of students who started ninth grade with the number of students who graduated four years later. This is a much more reliable way to figure out how many students graduate statewide because it doesn’t require tracking individuals. We used a similar method in our study of 2001 graduation rates, which found that California’s graduation rate is 67% and the national rate is 70%.
California, impressively, had previously resisted the temptation to produce inflated graduation rates. A rate of 70% or below is nothing to be proud of, but at least California was willing to admit that it had a problem.
So why change now? Simple: It succumbed to the temptation of finding an easy way to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires every state to demonstrate adequate educational performance. In addition to establishing test score mandates, the federal act requires each California school to either have a graduation rate of 82.8% or raise its graduation rate by 0.1 percentage points per year until it meets that goal. Individual schools and the state as a whole risk losing substantial federal funds if they don’t meet the goals.
The basic idea of holding states accountable for graduating their students is sound. Common sense and academic research tell us that when school systems are given incentives to perform better, they rise to the challenge and improve. The federal graduation rate requirements are particularly important because they prevent states from improving their test scores by simply flunking out all the low-scoring students.
The problem is that the U.S. Department of Education is allowing states to use inflated figures to satisfy the requirements rather than demanding honest statistics and real improvements. Only the very top schools have produced 82.8% graduation rates the honest way; everybody else is doing it by using phony numbers, and in most states, this isn’t a change from the status quo. Indiana now claims its graduation rate is 90.1%, but enrollment data put it at 74% in 2001, and it isn’t plausible that it would jump by 26 percentage points. Texas claims to have an annual dropout rate of only 1%, which works out to an overall graduation rate of about 95%; 2001 enrollment data put Texas’ graduation rate at 67%.
Until it adopted its new pretend graduation rate, California had been one of the few honest exceptions. Now it has the worst of both worlds: Its graduation rate is still atrociously low, but it no longer officially admits that it has a problem.
There remains a need for the dropout-counting method — done correctly, it’s the most accurate method for individual schools to figure their graduation rates. But the U.S. Department of Education should check those calculations at the statewide level. It’s reasonable to expect states to make progress toward a less dismal graduation rate; they shouldn’t be let off the hook just because they play make-believe with their numbers.