Standards for reporting high school dropout rates needed
Not waiting for Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush has directed Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to establish by edict a common formula for schools in all 50 states to use to calculate high school graduation and dropout rates. Such a formula is long overdue because using data released by different states and different school districts within the states makes it currently impossible to determine just how many students are not graduating from high school.
Nationwide, the graduation rate is assumed to be 70 percent, with as few as half the students completing high school in many urban areas. But to read the numbers reported by individual schools, the graduation rate is much higher than that.
The Southern Regional Education Board reports that when the number of graduating seniors reported by Kentucky high schools in 2003 is compared with the number of high school freshmen four years earlier, Kentucky’s graduation rate was 73 percent, or just below the national average of 75 percent. However, at the same time individual high schools in the state were reporting very low dropout rates.
Why the discrepancy? Well, some school systems count only the percentage of seniors who graduate, omitting everyone who dropped out in the ninth, 10th or 11th grade. Some states count GED recipients as graduates, and others counted as graduates are dropouts who only promised to get a GED.
Suppose a student informs his high school that he is transferring to another school, but he never enrolls in the new school. Instead, he drops out. But his old school counts him as transferring to a new school instead of dropping out, and his new school doesn’t count him as a dropout because he never enrolled there.
After a period of public comment, Spellings plans to announce a common formula for calculating graduation and dropout rates that all schools must implement by the 2012-13 school year. Of course, by that time Spellings will no longer by secretary of education and the formula her department devises may be long forgotten. Nevertheless, we commend her for belatedly attempting to establish a universal formula.
A common formula will make for transparency, a reliable database and state-by-state comparisons. And it is hardly a new idea. In 2005, the National Governors Association endorsed a common formula and proposed the relatively simple measure of dividing the number of graduating seniors by the number of ninth-graders who entered the school four years earlier.
In some ways, No Child Left Behind encourages school districts to fudge on graduation rates in order to look good. However, in an era in which those without high school degrees are not even likely to qualify for the most basic of jobs, it is important to know just how serious the nation’s dropout problem is. If we can’t even define the size of the problem, we are not likely to solve it.