States Fudging High-School Dropout Rates

 

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.

Other findings:

  • 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
 
X

Related Stories

    • Stateline Story
    February 10, 2012
    image description

    TODAY'S TAKE: The waivers allow these states to skip some of the law's requirements by implementing their own plans to improve their schools. more

    • Stateline Story
    December 15, 2011
    image description

    EDUCATION BEAT: With 39 states planning to apply for waivers from some of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, a report finds that 48 percent of schools across the country likely did not meet the law's requirements in 2011 for yearly progress at student proficiency in math and reading.
    more

    • Stateline Story
    September 23, 2011
    image description

    TODAY'S TAKE: The president laid out educational reforms states will be required to adopt in order to qualify for exemptions from some of the requirements of the nearly ten-year-old federal education law.
    more

    • Stateline Story
    March 16, 2010
    image description

    One state at a time, the push for common school graduation standards has been gaining traction. In just five years, the number of states with such standards for college and career-readiness has increased from three to 31. But behind the progress there has consistently been a looming concern: Would the federal government move in and supersede the gains that states have been making?That concern grew into genuine alarm a few weeks ago when the Obama administration announced that a new set of federal graduation requirements would be forthcoming. State education officials worried out loud that this might mean an attempt to hand down standards from Washington to every school in the country.
    more

    • Stateline Story
    September 23, 2007
    image description

    Little Johnny and Jane are back in school - but are we doing our best for him or her? Put aside, for a moment, "No Child Left Behind" teaching issues. Ask instead: How are the kids getting to school? And when they get there, are their school buildings satisfactorily "green" and healthy?
    more

PCS.PRODUCTION.1.20140221.1210 (PEWSUWVMWAPP01)