When the U.S. Department of Education directed public schools to change the method of calculating the number graduates last year, the prediction was that graduation rates would plummet. However, preliminary reports show more than half of districts on the Missouri side of the state line have defied that expectation.
“The Department anticipates that the more rigorous method will result in lower reported graduation rates,” reads a federal press release dated last month.
The federal government’s prediction in its press release did seem to hold true when the KC Education Enterprise averaged last year’s graduation rates for the 15 metro-area districts in Missouri. Graduation rates seem to have peaked in 2004, held steady for several years and declined since then. And the rate did plummet last year.
But not everyone seems to have read the Department of Education’s press release.
Here are charts showing graduation rates over the past decade for the nine districts on the Missouri side of the state line reporting level and even rising graduation rates last year despite the new, more stringent standards:
And here are graphs from the six districts with declining graduation rates:
Education pundits have long been concerned that districts could use statistics to disguise the number of dropouts, resulting in misleading graduation rates. Another problem was that not every state used the same method of calculation, so no one could compare rates from state to state.
It is important to hold schools accountable for increasing the number of students who graduate, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national educational policy organization seeking to improve public schools. Otherwise, districts might be tempted to pressure low-achieving students to drop out in order to improve standardized test scores.
The Alliance also contends that, because high school dropouts usually do not earn as much as those who receive diplomas, the United States economy suffers. In 2008, dropouts became a $319 billion drain on the economy, according to the Alliance, with $4.8 billion of that amount coming from the state of Missouri.
Several years ago, independent researchers started demonstrating that real graduation rates might not have been as high as official reports. Statistics from the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education Research Center show only 74 percent of students graduate from high school Missouri and 69 percent nationwide. (Compare that to this year’s average 85 percent graduation rate on the Missouri side of the state line.) Numbers are even lower for students from minority backgrounds.
“It is an ongoing tragedy that barely half of the Hispanic and black male students in our public schools are likely to earn a high school diploma,” Missouri Education Commissioner Chris L. Nicastro said in a statement to the press last year. “As we think about ‘school reform’ in the next decade, we must do more to identify students who are struggling and help them achieve at a level that will assure their success during and after high school.”
Although a breakdown of graduation rates by ethnicity and race is not currently available,it is possible to examine local graduation rates through the lens of economic advantage and disadvantage. Such an examination can be valuable, because the reason so many Hispanic and African-American students do not graduate may reflect the fact that there are more such students living in poverty.
Here is a list of the 15 Missouri districts ranked according to the percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals, along with the percentage of young people who graduated on time and whether the districts met federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements for graduation rates:
The Kansas City, Missouri School District has the largest number of students who are disadvantaged, and only about half of their students graduated last year. On the other hand, Lee’s Summit has the smallest number of disadvantaged students, and more than 95 percent of their students graduated. There are some outliers (Center may be “The Little District That Could”), but generally districts with more economically disadvantaged students had fewer graduates.
In an attempt to solve these problems, in 2005 the state governors devised a common method of calculating the graduation rate. Three years later, the U.S. Department of Education announced that this method would be required as part of districts’ AYP reports beginning with the 2010-2011 academic year. Missouri issued preliminary AYP reports — including graduation rates calculated using the new, more exacting formula — earlier this month.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which went into effect in 2002, all districts must report student progress on standardized tests as well as attendance and graduation rates or risk state sanctions. Although the act has been controversial, its goal was to close achievement gaps among students of different economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Because this is a transitional year, no district risks sanctions based on its reported graduation rate for the 2010-2011 academic year. However, districts will be held accountable for increasing the size of next May’s graduating classes.
Here is how the federal government describes the new method of calculating graduation rates:
The transition to a uniform high school graduation rate requires all states to report the number of students who graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma, divided by the number of students who entered high school four years earlier, and accounting for student transfers in and out of school. States may also opt to use an extended-year adjusted cohort, allowing states, districts and schools to account for students who complete high school in more than four years …
In addition, schools must maintain documentation for students who have transferred. States will continue to report graduation rates at the high school, district and state levels including rates for subgroups of students. The new measurement holds schools accountable for students who drop out and others who don’t earn a regular high school diploma.
Graduation rates for the 2010-2011 academic year are not yet available from the state of Kansas.
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