D.C. expects ‘significant’ drop in graduation rate under new calculation.

Shira Fishman, a teacher at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast D.C., works with high school students in a math class. New federal standards are going to ensure that each high school student is tracked individually to determine whether he or she graduates.

Ask a random sampling of D.C. residents about the dropout rate of District public school students, and their guesses actually aren’t that far off. Many of them guess that 70-80 percent of students graduate; the actual official graduation rate hovers around 76 percent.

That number is not exactly a true picture of what’s going on, however, because until now, D.C. has used a formula researchers consider generous to calculate graduation rates. Now, for the first time, the federal government is requiring states to follow a standardized method.

As a result, D.C.’s public school graduation rate could drop by about 20 percent under the new calculation, according to the office of the state superintendent.

“We expect to see about a 20 percent drop district-wide,” says Kayleen Irizarry, assistant superintendent of elementary and secondary education. That means just a little more than half of all D.C. public school children – including those in charter schools — are graduating with high school diplomas in four years.

The new methodology, which requires tracking students individually from 9th grade all the way through 12th grade to determine if they graduate, means states across the country will be able to compare their graduation rates accurately. Many of them are bracing for lower graduation numbers; several states that have started using the formula have already seen the rates drop.

Maryland is one of them. Using the new calculation, the state’s graduation rate fell by 5 points to 82 percent. Virginia has been using the new formula for a few years, and its rate is 83 percent. D.C. will report its new numbers for the first time next month, and Irizarry says the rate will fall “significantly.”

Former rates based on flawed data

To determine how this new method could result in such a steep change for the District’s graduation rate, one needs to look at the extremely complicated system for calculating graduation rates, which has historically involved a lot of fuzzy math.

Just a decade ago, the percentage of students completing high school was measured using a survey conducted by the U.S. Census, and the reports were always positive, according to Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University professor and one of the nation’s top experts on dropouts.

When the national graduation rate appeared to hit 90 percent, Balfanz says, researchers decided to take a closer look.

“And then you recognize that that was based on a telephone survey that doesn’t include people in prison, for example, doesn’t include people who don’t want to talk to people who call them at night,” he says. In addition, people know it’s important to graduate high school, so they may say they graduated when they didn’t.

“So on all sides, sort of inflating it and sort of all agreeing we don’t have a problem when we really did,” Balfanz says.

New method, less ‘mess’

States can and have inflated graduation numbers for years using different methods. Some estimate how many students they think graduated, others count GED certificates as high school diplomas. Others only consider the graduation rate of 12th graders, without counting students who may have dropped out years earlier.

Chris Chapman, who's worked on national graduation and dropout rate statistics for the past 15 years.

Even for Chris Chapman, author of the annual federal report [PDF] on graduation rates at the National Center for Education Statistics, the methods used to calculate the rates across the country are dizzyingly different.

“We’ve got the true cohort rates, we’ve got the averaged freshman graduation rate, we have a leaver rate,” he says, with a laugh. “I’m trying to think if there are others I could describe in English.”

While some might characterize the sheer variety of methods a mess, Chapman generously calls it a “mishmash.”  And the biggest problem with all the different calculations was that the rates couldn’t be compared from state to state.

All that changes now. The new method, called the adjusted graduation cohort rate, requires states to follow every individual child from the ninth grade on until he or she walks across the stage to receive that diploma. It takes into account students who change schools and get held back. Balfanz says that will help provide a more accurate picture.

“You would see wild celebrations at the end of the year, when 150 kids would graduate,” he says. “And then you would look and say, but they said they had 600 kids in 9th grade. And they are wildly celebrating 150 kids graduating.”

Dropout rate not the inverse of graduation rate

To complicate matters further, the students not counted as graduates aren’t necessarily categorized as dropout either. Some students may leave school and return, others may take five or six years to earn diplomas.

D.C.’s dropout rate is 7 percent under the old calculation, according to the latest data available. But that rate is expected to increase under the new calculation. Maryland’s dropout rate rose from 3.2 percent to 12 percent when it switched. The Virginia dropout rate is now 7 percent.

Certain things are known about the dropout population. For example, Irizarry says, a child most at risk for dropping out in DC fits a certain profile: male, Hispanic, and has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that calls for special education services.

But beyond that, she doesn’t quite trust the data. That too is about to change with the new State Longitudinal Education Database (SLED). In this new system, each child from kindergarten through 12th grade in D.C. public schools now has a 10-digit identification number.

Database will track each student’s progress

The database has information on a student’s date of birth, race, school, grade, test results. ”English language learner status, special education status, whether they’re a migrant student and it goes on and on,” says Irizarry.

If a student doesn’t move on to the next grade, schools have to provide specific reasons and documentation. For example, they can no longer just say a child moved to another state or migrated to another country or is enrolled in private school. They have to have the transfer paperwork.

There has never been a record this comprehensive or complete to track students, Irizarry says.

That’s probably because following individual students is challenging and expensive. Often, students don’t tell anyone at school they’re dropping out, parents aren’t always responsive, or phone numbers and addresses change. But even with all the challenges of collecting this data, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says it will provide “real transparency” which he calls “hugely important.”

“Graduation rates will probably go down, and the dropout rates will probably go up, no one wants to see that happen but guess what, for better or worse that’s the truth,” he says. “When you have a baseline of facts, then we can learn much faster where strategies are helping to reduce dropout rates and increase graduation rates and we can transfer those best practices across states in ways that just haven’t happened.”

Remembering the students amid the statistics

In this complex world of calculations and statistics, Chapman, who has worked on the federal graduation rates for 15 years, tries to keep the human side of his work in mind. The most important thing to remember, he says, is behind every statistic is a real student: a young man or woman who might not realize how leaving high school will have dire real-life impacts.

Chapman saw in his own family how leaving high school without a diploma can lead to a lifetime of struggle. His younger brother dropped out of school in 9th grade.

After working for many years as a dishwasher and living in an unheated garage, Chapman says, his brother finally completed his GED certificate in his 30’s.

The first step to reducing the dropout rate might be to finally count those teenagers who researchers call ‘America’s forgotten children.’ Because often, what you don;t count, you don’t see on paper. And if it’s not on paper, it’s as if the problem doesn’t even exist.


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