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Editorial: On dropout numbers, the math improves

The extent of the school dropout issue has been difficult to pin down, but the measurements are becoming more reliable and the solutions more finely tuned. For a time, officials noted that the graduation rate was 62 percent in Spokane Public Schools, but as it turned out that figure was too simplistic, failing to take into account students who would eventually graduate, if not on time, and a host of other exceptions that couldn’t be captured because of gaps in student data.

Now the public can look at two figures with which to evaluate dropout rates. First, there is the on-time graduation rate, which begins tracking students in ninth grade and checks their status four years later. Second, there is the extended rate, which also tracks whether students graduated outside the four-year window. Society still benefits when students graduate late, so the extended rate ought to get more attention than it does. Furthermore, both calculations treat those who get a General Education Development certificate as dropouts, even though a GED is roughly equivalent to a high school diploma and is treated as such by many employers and higher education institutions.

A total of 4,898 students in the Class of 2010 received a “late” diploma, according to the latest report from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The extended graduation rate statewide is 82.6 percent, but the more widely discussed figure is the on-time rate, which is now 76.5 percent statewide. For Spokane Public Schools this figure is 70.2 percent, which is a significant improvement over 62 percent. Then again, half of that improvement is attributed to more accurate counting, which suggests the problem was always overstated. And, yes, that is still below the state average, but the gap is narrowing.

At the same time, the extended graduation rate for all Spokane County high schools was 83.6 percent and 73.4 percent for Spokane Public Schools. These figures are less troubling than those we’re used to hearing.

So what does this blizzard of data mean? First, it shows that a more comprehensive tracking of students by itself lowered the dropout rate. So it was beneficial for Spokane Public Schools to assign a person who focuses on this. By tracking where students went, the district discovered that many of them should not have been categorized as dropouts. Second, by focusing on the extended rate, we find that the issue is more manageable. Third, that when proposing solutions, especially those that call for tax increases, it helps to know the extent of the problem and whether districts are doing all they can do.

Spokane Public Schools recently started the On-Track Academy, which identifies the juniors and seniors who are in jeopardy of missing graduation and gets them immediate help. As a result, 95 percent of them graduate. Other programs focus on middle school students, but the effects won’t be known until those classes reach graduation.

All in all, the public should be encouraged by the efforts to identify the problem and implement solutions, but it should still demand further progress and accountability.

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