Talkin’ Dropouts

James Brown, “Don’t Be a Dropout.”

Lots of news about dropouts and graduation rates recently.

Education Week just published their Diplomas Count report. It is pretty alarmist. Graduation rate scholars Jim Heckman, Paul LaFontaine, Larry Mishel, and Joydeep Roy raised some issues with how Education Week counted (hat tip to eduwonkette, one of my new favorite education bloggers):

In our examination of the data and methodologies available to estimate high school graduation rates we have found that insights can be gained from household surveys and from administrative data on student enrollment and diplomas granted. However, we find the measures of graduation rates in Education Week’s Diploma Counts project, computed from diploma and enrollment data, to be exceedingly inaccurate. The main problem is the assumption that the number of students enrolled in 9th grade is the same as the number of students entering high school. This assumption artificially lowers the estimates of current graduation rates, especially for minorities who are more likely to be retained (repeat 9th grade). This measure also artificially reduces the growth of the graduation rate over time because the practice of grade retention has grown over time, again, especially among minorities.

The resulting errors are sufficiently large to artificially lower the graduation rate by 9 percentage points overall and by 14 percentage points for minorities. Grade retention also differs sharply across states and localities, distorting geographic comparisons. Last, these measures do not reflect the ultimate graduation rates of a cohort of students because the data do not capture diplomas provided by adult education and other sources than schools.

Paper from Heckman and Lafontaine, here; Paper from Mishel and Roy, here.

The Wisconsin State Journal editorialized in favor of adopting the graduation rate measure endorsed by the National Governor’s Association (NGA) as a single national standard (Leslie Anne Howard of the Dane County United Way had an op. ed., mostly in support of this position). There is much to be said in favor of national statistical standardization, but if the adopted standard is flawed, you open the door to a new set of problems. The NGA measure is largely based on the one used by Florida. Sherman Dorn notes some “troubling issues” with the Florida rate calculations:

  • The inclusion of alternatives to standard diplomas in the graduation numbers, with no public disaggregation
  • The exclusion of alleged transfers and movers from the base (creating an adjusted cohort) without any data quality checks to ensure that transfers really show up at a private school or in another state
  • The exclusion from the base (adjusted cohort) of students who drop out and immediately enroll in GED programs (as transfers to adult programs)

He also has some nice general thoughts on what to look for in graduation rate calculations here and here (lots more on his site, browse around or do a search; his posts are very accessible for those of us who are not steeped in the swamp of grad rate measures).

Information on how Wisconsin calculates dropout and completion rates. Many of the issues noted in the critiques of the various measures are present with Wisconsin’s. MMSD posted am 81.8% “regular diploma” completion rate in 2006-7, but there are great disparities among the rates for white students (90.4%), African American students (61.6%) and Hispanic students (60.8). The 2006-7 dropout rate was 2.699%, also with pronounced racial disparities (data can be accessed here).

Finally, this story in the Cap Times on Operation Fresh Start, (which has a GED component). By the way, I think this is a fine use of Wal-Mart’s money, but I still wish our legislators would get them to pay their fair share of taxes (some recent progress, but a long way to go).

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Best Practices, education, Equity, Local News, National News, nclb, No Child Left Behind, School Finance, Uncategorized

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