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A grad-rate turnaround? Even if so, uptick is tiny

Tuesday’s New York Times carried a story about a report suggesting that the nation’s high-school graduation rate had bottomed out and begun to rise.

Tuesday’s New York Times carried a story about a report suggesting that the nation’s high-school graduation rate had bottomed out and begun to rise. Conducted by a nonprofit founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the study found that the United States’ graduation rate increased to 75 percent in 2008, from 72 percent in 2001.

“The United States is turning a corner in meeting the high school dropout epidemic,” the paper quoted the general announcing.

Is a three-point hike in the graduation rate cause for celebration? That still means one of every four kids doesn’t graduate from high school. Powell might want to call that a turnaround, but I’d argue it’s easier to frame it as an ongoing tragedy.

But I’m not even ready to assume the three-point uptick actually happened, in large part because if there’s one thing my experience reporting on education has taught me, it’s that graduation rates are among the squishiest statistics in existence. We can draw better conclusions about life on Mars.

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My ire is up in no small part because inadvertently lying with statistics is one of the most frustrating, humiliating experiences a reporter can have. As a deadly earnest intern in the Los Angeles Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau about a thousand years ago, I wrote a story declaring the unemployment rate to have fallen dramatically — only to learn the next day that it did so because George Bush the elder decided hundreds of thousands of jobless folks were deadbeats who should no longer be counted.

MPS’ experience with graduation-rate reporting
Several years ago, data crunchers at Minneapolis Public Schools complained often and loudly that the district’s graduation rate was consistently underreported. Minnesota would report the number of four-year graduates and non-graduates, not dropouts or kids who needed more than four years to earn a diploma.

The fine print would give an actuary brain-bleed, but the gist was that if a kid disappeared from, say, North High, only to pop up at and go on to graduate from Washburn, said kid would show up as failing to graduate when North’s rate was calculated.

And if said kid quit both North and Washburn but graduated from Robbinsdale’s Cooper? Or, because they were learning English or had a learning disability, took five or six years to graduate? You can see where this was going.

Indeed, I recently wrote about Humboldt Senior High in St. Paul, which is deemed a persistent failure when judged by the old measure, and the deliverer of miracles when judged by new ones we’re about to get into.

Minnesota began chipping away at this problem several years ago, ultimately solving it by factoring in data that tracks which district gets paid for schooling a given kid on a given day, according to Cathy Wagner, director of Information Technology for the state Department of Education. There are a few very technical caveats, but for the last few years the last school a student attends in Minnesota is the place that is either penalized or rewarded for that student’s graduation status.

What’s happening on federal level
Alas, this hasn’t been true at the national level. In its decade on the federal government’s books, No Child Left Behind has forced education administrators to collect and disseminate all kinds of data that most policymakers now agree tell us very little. States must report their graduation rates, but until very recently, NCLB has not specified how they are to be calculated.

In 2008, the feds told the rest of the country, essentially, to start counting the way Minnesota does now. States must now report how many eighth-graders go on to graduate, period, according to a much more nuanced story about the graduation-rate report published in Education Week.

The new rules about methodology go into effect this year. “I would just tell you the phones are ringing off the hook from states and districts that are waking up to the fact that they have to meet these graduation-rate-reporting requirements and annual targets,” one of the study’s authors told the trade publication.

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So, do we know whether comparing a 72 percent graduation rate in 2002 to a 75 percent one in 2008 compares apples? We might, but I’d argue, who cares? As EdWeek reported, “most states have gained momentum in improving graduation rates, but will need to improve at least five times faster to meet a national goal of 90 percent of students graduating on time by 2020.”

A tantalizing paradox
Here’s where the New York Times really sold its readers short: The report identified steps being taken by states that have brought rates up much higher, much faster. Tennessee and New York, for instance, brought their rates up by 15 and 10 percent, respectively, in part by the early identification of students who are at risk of failing and in part by establishing more rigorous expectations.

Isn’t that last item a tantalizing paradox? “Increasing their standards and requirements improved graduation rates,” the study’s authors said. “It’s exactly what the dropouts had said they wanted: more rigor; to be challenged.”

Maybe there’s an Advanced Placement math class in some Minnesota high school that would consider — for extra credit, of course — devising a statistical tool that measures a school’s ability to engage its students and correlates that engagement to its graduation rate? Just a thought.