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Dropout rates can mislead

Sun., April 13, 2008

About 11.5 percent of Spokane Public Schools high school students dropped out in 2005-06.

In the West Valley School District, it was less than 1 percent.

And across the state line in Coeur d’Alene, it was 5.23 percent.

The figures are calculated and reported to the state as part of the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on accountability and benchmarks. They help make up the mathematical matrix by which districts are judged.

But as a measure of how many students a district loses along the way, the figures leave a lot to be desired. For one thing, most districts move troubled students – truants, discipline cases, poor students – into alternative programs, whose staggering dropout rates sometimes don’t appear on districts’ official figures.

For example, dropout rates for Valley school districts in 2005-06 were much lower than the state average of 5.7 percent. West Valley, which petitioned the state to have its alternative programs removed from its dropout rate, reports a dropout rate of 0.6 percent. Central Valley’s is 1.6 percent and East Valley’s 3.2.

Dropout rates for the cooperative alternative programs of the Valley schools, though, was 25 percent. The percentage of students in those programs graduating on time is 22 percent.

At Spokane Public Schools and in Coeur d’Alene, the dropout rates include students who enroll in the districts’ alternative programs. But even that difference among districts, critics say, is a problem – because everyone counts dropouts differently. Even the Spokane district’s own assessment of its dropout rate – 11.5 percent – differs from the figure the state reports for the district – 7.9 percent.

Another problem with the dropout rates and reporting requirements for No Child Left Behind is that states have been left to their own devices in determining how to calculate their rates – and they choose different ways of doing so. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced earlier this month that the federal government would establish a single way of measuring the rate to get a more accurate figure and one that’s comparable among districts.

Currently, the main methods of calculating the dropout rate substantially underestimate the number of children who never earn a diploma, critics say.

The two most common measures used by the Department of Education tend to report the scope of the national problem as either between 4 percent and 6 percent (according to a measure that relies on household surveys) or between 11 percent and 13 percent (based on a population-wide calculation), according to a report prepared for the Business Roundtable.

Most researchers believe the real number of children who don’t earn a diploma ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent, the report said.

Jeff Miller, principal of East Valley High School, said the annual dropout rate has other problems, as well. If an at-risk student moves around a lot, for example, “the school that ends up with the student file last is the school that has to count the kid as a dropout,” he said.

That makes it problematic, at least as a supposed measure of any one school’s effectiveness. If people really wanted to examine dropouts, he said, they’d look at a K-12 continuum for each district – something that would be a huge undertaking.

“They’d have to take a closer look at the data than is being done now,” he said.

The dropout rate also tends to understate the scope of the problem by using an annual figure, critics say. For any freshman class, for example, the critical question is how many kids will make it through the next four years. If a school has an annual dropout rate of 6 percent, for example, that means only about three-quarters of them do.

Indeed, critics of the dropout rate say the number of students in any given age group who don’t get a diploma ranges as high as 30 percent and it hasn’t gotten much better since 1969.

“The high concentrations of school dropouts, especially male dropouts, in many of these large central cities should be viewed as the new ‘social dynamite’ of the twenty-first century,” said the Business Roundtable report.

Some educators worry that the increased emphasis on testing may exacerbate the problem with dropouts – both because many at-risk kids may struggle with standards or deadlines and because it has created an atmosphere in schools in which there is less room to be flexible and creative.

“This is potentially leaving more kids behind, not less,” said Cleve Penberthy, principal of Contract-Based Education, a cooperative alternative school in the West Valley School District that takes students from all over.

He said shuffling students into alternative programs masks the reality that for a significant minority of students, traditional high school isn’t working.

Penberthy participates in a committee that reviews the progress of at-risk students and helps decide whether to intervene and place the kids into alternative programs.

During a recent interview, he noted that the committee had reviewed five students who were each moved from West Valley High into different programs – like CBE.

“The high school lost five kids today,” he said. “That’s today, just a Thursday in March. Five kids are being redirected, and that’s not going to show up in any statistic.”


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