States Fudging High-School Dropout Rates
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
A new report on high school graduation rates sharply criticizes states for fudging statistics on dropouts and for setting "appallingly low" goals for boosting the number of students who get diplomas.
While boosting student achievement has become a national priority for politicians and education officials, the report laid bare states' inability to accurately track high school dropouts.
The report," Getting Honest About Grad Rates: How States Play the Numbers and Students Lose," also rebukes the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for allowing states to report inaccurate graduation rates without consequence.
Two years after first reporting severe gaps in state dropout data, the Education Trust analysis released June 23 found few examples of improvement and continued patterns of states inflating graduation rates.
While President Bush and the nation's governors want to reform America's high schools -- which have slipped to 17 th place among developed nations in graduation rates -- unreliable information on dropouts is threatening to undermine those efforts, said Kate Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to increase academic achievement in schools.
"We've got to end this rampant dishonesty about graduation rates if we are going to prepare students for the challenges of college, work and life," Haycock said. Education Trust receives some of its funding from the The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org .
The report examines the 2002-2003 graduation-rate data reported by states to the federal government in January 2005. Three states -- Alabama, Louisiana and Massachusetts -- did not report any graduation rates. Officials in those states said they did not yet have data-collecting systems in place to calculate graduation rates.
The report found that most states exaggerated their graduation rates by ignoring students who dropped out of high school before their senior year. Nationally, states reported an average graduation rate of 83 percent, far higher than independent measures, which estimate that at least 30 percent of public high school students nationwide fail to graduate in four years.
The report commended only two states -- Alaska and Washington -- for reporting realistic graduation rates. Measuring the percent of freshman who finish high school in four years, Alaska and Washington reported gradation rates of 67 and 66 percent respectively.
Washington state Superintendent of Schools Terry Bergeson said parents and school officials were shocked to learn the severity of the state's dropout problem.
"We're taking some heat for our honesty, but it's a wake-up call for us," Bergeson said during a telephone press conference.
New Mexico, for example, reported to DOE a graduation rate of almost 90 percent, one of the nation's highest. However, the state does not track the percentage of freshman who graduate, only seniors. This ignores students who dropped out in the 9th, 10th and 11th grades. State education officials said they are in the process of developing a new system to more accurately track dropouts by the 2005-2006 school year.
"It's astonishing that states are trying to pass off these numbers as legitimate," said Daria Hall, author of the report and a policy analyst at the Education Trust. "Rather than confront our very real dropout problem, many states have chosen to bury it beneath false data."
Broken down by race, nearly half of Hispanic, African-American and Native American students who start secondary school never receive a diploma, according to independent reports. Education advocates have been warning that lower-performing groups of students, such as minorities, low-income and disabled students, may choose or be encouraged to drop out as standardized testing pressures increase.
"If you're going to raise accountability in your education system, then you don't want to disguise the fact that that pressure may be nudging kids out of the system to bring a school's overall (test result) numbers up," said Bergeson of Washington state.
The report blamed the federal government for failing to exert more pressure on states to get honest about their dropout problems. Tracking and improving high school graduation rates is one of the requirements of Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which also requires states to demonstrate student achievement on reading and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school, or face sanctions.
States are "making a mockery" of the federal requirement and avoiding penalties by setting "appallingly low" graduation-rate goals, the report asserted. The goals set by New Mexico and North Carolina, for example, are simply not to let graduation rates get worse. Thirty-one other states set no specific goals for improving graduation rates, but count any improvement as good enough.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has been highlighting the magnitude of high dropout rates as she presses for high school reform, said Education Department spokesperson Susan Aspey. The department plans to announce recommendations for states to better calculate graduation rates later this summer, she said.
"Since you can't fix problems if you don't know about them, it's absolutely vital that states get the necessary systems in place so parents and the public know the true extent of the dropout problem," Aspey said in an e-mail.
- Seven states -- Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Vermont -- did not break down dropout data by student subgroups, hiding dropout disparities between white and minority students.
- 29 states did not report dropout rates for students with disabilities.
- 33 states did not report dropout rates among low-income students or students with limited English proficiency