Dropouts getting attention

The high school dropout rate is finally getting the attention, and stirring the outrage, that it deserves. A toughly worded report out today from The Education Trust essentially tells most of the states to simply stop the nonsense. Comply with the reporting requirements of NCLB and quit playing with the numbers. “Reporting inaccurate graduation numbers and educators floundering to explain implausible numbers corrodes public confidence in schools and their leadership. Until educators are seen as honest and trustworthy reporters of student outcomes, it will be difficult to persuade the public to invest in improving high school results.” Ed Trust also excoriates the U.S. Department of Education for its utter lack of leadership on the issue, allowing “states to report inaccurate and incomplete data with no consequence.”

The level of cynicism on this issue is shocking. According to the Ed Trust report, 31 states have said that “any” improvement meets the requirements of NCLB and four states have said improving the rate by .1% is adequate. Two other states—New Mexico and South Carolina—are happy with no improvement whatsoever.

The report concludes by quoting a recent well-done series of editorials in The Indianapolis Star: “The first step is to tell the truth.” Indeed, a number of newspapers have abandoned their all too frequent on-the-one-hand on-the-other-hand caution and are doing their own math. The Detroit News just concluded a series that stated flat-out that Michigan is graduating only 77 percent of its students, districts are not reporting their dropouts, and dropouts are adding to the state’s welfare and unemployment rolls and prison population. The Rocky Mountain News and the Los Angeles Times also have done good work on the subject.

A separate report by the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children also released this week says that state’s 21.7% dropout rate is unacceptable. We can stipulate that calculating a precise dropout rate is not easy because states have not invested in student-level data and that has allowed them to report for years overly rosy numbers. That was OK , perhaps, when it was possible for a dropout to actually get a job and support themselves. That’s no longer true. Moreover, we now have something called “computers” that make it relatively easy to keep track of the progress of individual students. And we have a law, NCLB, that requires states to report on graduation rates or completion rates or whatever measure of attainment they want to use. But the states just don’t want to do it. They don’t want to spend the money to gather the data, perhaps, but the bottom line is they don’t want to know. And it doesn’t look like the feds plan to do anything about it. Let’s hope journalists keep up the pressure.

By Guestblogger Richard Lee Colvin, Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Teachers College, Columbia University

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