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Dropout rate hard to pin down

Students who transfer, graduate late skew data

A dropout is defined by Washington education officials as “a student who leaves school for any reason, except death, before completing school with a regular diploma and does not transfer to another school.”

That’s understandable, right?

But when it comes to calculating a dropout rate, it’s not always that simple. Complicated formulas, gaps in student data and a lack of understanding can make the statistic elusive for school officials and others.

Take, for example, Spokane Public Schools’ highly publicized dropout rate. The 38 percent repeatedly stated by district officials, City Council members, child advocates and community leaders was incorrect, school officials now say.

The 38 percent is the share of students who failed to graduate on time – four academic years after entering their freshman year. That figure was derived from subtracting the percentage of on-time graduates (62 percent) from 100 percent.

The more accurate figure, called the “cohort dropout rate,” is calculated using a complicated algebraic formula that takes into account how many students drop out of each high school grade level in a single year and factors in students set to continue the next semester.

So for the class of 2008 – the group that ignited community campaigns and studies for dropout prevention – the district’s dropout rate was 29.3 percent. For the class of 2009, it’s 28.7 percent, according to recently released state data.

To further confuse the issue, Washington tracks what’s called the “extended” graduation rate, which refers to students who did not graduate in the standard four years but have since received their diplomas through the district.

Until an enrollment specialist from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction recently explained the calculation to Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell, she didn’t realize the reported dropout rate was wrong, although she suspected it.

“Reporting the numbers (data) is only part of the issue, and we can fix those problems,” Stowell said. “The more important part is developing the right programs to keep kids on track for graduation.”

The district has more than a dozen student-centered programs in place to help address the dropout rate, and it’s planning more.

But emphasis also will be put on better record-keeping.

Two suggested procedures: following up on out-of-district transfers and placing newly enrolled high school students in the grade appropriate for their number of credits rather than their age. Lisa Ireland, a state enrollment specialist, made the suggestions when she met with district administrators in March.

Spokane Public Schools also plans to quit giving students their transcripts when they transfer. By requiring the new district to request the transcripts, Spokane high schools can cross the student off as a confirmed transfer and not a dropout.

Everett School District in Western Washington has improved its graduation rate by more than 30 percentage points since 2004 primarily by better tracking its students. District employees followed up on students who left the district. They also identified those who were struggling and got them help to stay on track. Now the district boasts a 90.2 percent extended graduation rate, an Everett School District spokeswoman said.

While Spokane’s newly reported dropout rate – nearly 29 percent – is better than the previously publicized 38 percent, it’s still not good, Stowell says. But the new figure gives a truer picture of how many kids do not finish high school.

A steering committee advocating for a Children’s Investment Fund levy that would help finance dropout prevention programs in the community had been using the same statistics as the district. But after meeting with Stowell, that’s changed.

When referring to the dropout rate, Ben Stuckart, a steering committee member and director of Communities in Schools, said he is using the 28.7 percent figure for Spokane Public Schools. And he is being specific about other percentages by using the terms “on-time graduation rate” and “extended graduation rate.”

Stuckart said, “It needs to be clear for everyone.”

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