This week, the GradNation campaign released a report allowing people to compare graduation rates among states and to the national average of 83.2 percent. If states continue at their current rate of increase, we could see a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020. You can even delve into this state-by-state map to see who is leading and lagging.
On its face, the graduation rate news is good. But the data on which those rates rely are frequently subject to various forms of manipulation, not to say system-gaming. It’s a long, old story and bears reporting over and over.
The proudest moment of my reporting career did not involve winning public service awards. It came in a conversation with former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Paul Vallas, after I published a package of stories detailing the ways high schools were pushing students out. When I pointed out to Vallas than an alternative high school called Urban Youth was the final destination for thousands of CPS students who never finished high school and were never counted as dropouts, he said, “You’re right.”
Soon after that conversation, the district closed Urban Youth. For the few kids a year who graduated, it might have been a great program. But for thousands of high schoolers over decades, it had been the system’s way of making them disappear without a trace. You see, when students transferred to Urban Youth, they weren’t counted as dropouts at their former high schools. Nor were they counted as dropouts when they never showed up at Urban Youth, or when they left without finishing there.
Eliminating this transfer loophole was a first step on Chicago’s long road toward counting its graduates and dropouts more accurately. But other problems with loopholes have persisted.
Last year, the district recalculated most high schools’ graduation numbers following an investigation by WBEZ and the Better Government Association. Schools were not following the rules about who counts as a dropout and who counts as a transfer, particularly when it came to students leaving high school for GED or alternative programs that don’t offer the same depth of education as a traditional high school diploma. Although the district has made efforts to bear down on miscoding dropouts as transfers, without continued public pressure, you can bet it will happen again.
Similar inaccuracies are rampant across the country, as a recent investigation by ProPublica found. But solutions are at hand. As states begin to submit their ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act)-required accountability plans, now is a good time to review smart strategies the federal government can use to ensure they don’t let kids fall through these common loopholes.
How to Count Graduates Accurately
Four national organizations that spearhead the Grad Nation campaign to raise high school graduation rates recently offered Education Secretary Betsy DeVos some wise advice on the role the feds can play:
- Identify “dropout factories” by counting graduates accurately. Don’t inflate the numbers. That means using a graduation rate that counts all the freshmen who started high school in one building and keeps track of them all for the next four years to see who graduated and who didn’t. (The technical term for this is a 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate.)
- Intervene in schools where kids aren’t earning diplomas. This goes double when subgroups of students are not graduating in schools where other measures look OK. It also requires being smart about the partners who can help schools move forward.
- Don’t ignore results in alternative, charter and virtual schools. If we are serious about helping all our kids succeed, those kids must count, too. We can’t write off any young person, even the ones who are most difficult to reach.
Despite some fears to the contrary, early indications suggest DeVos & Co. will not rubber-stamp states’ ESSA accountability plans. I hope we see them dig in deeply enough to push states to take counting graduates—and dropouts—seriously.