The country needs a consistent — and fair — way to count who doesn’t graduate.
For too long, high schools and states have played hide-the-dropout, artificially inflating their graduation rates. In many places, a teenager practically has to show up at the principal’s office and shout “I’m a dropout!” to get counted as one. Considering that the dropout rate is, even by sunny estimates, distressingly high, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is right to plan a standardized method of reporting nationwide. The public won’t demand change when it cannot clearly see the problem.
This is one subject, though, that calls for delicate handling — not the bludgeon-likeapproach of the rest of the No Child Left Behind Act. Depending on who’s doing the counting and how, the dropout rate in the Los Angeles Unified School District is somewhere between 25% and 55%. Spellings can do more harm than good if she devises rules that make schools look unrealistically bad. A case in point is the study released last week by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which placed the city’s dropout rate at 55%.
The study over-counts dropouts by failing to take into account that 27% of L.A. Unified’s students move each academic year; those who move out of the district are considered dropouts even though many may be attending school in a neighboring city. In addition, the district rightly requires about 20% of its ninth-graders to repeat the grade to bring their work up to high school level, but the study counts anyone who doesn’t take a diploma within the traditional four years as a dropout. So much for students who need an extra year to pass the exit exam or who earn an equivalency degree.
The only way to count dropouts with reasonable accuracy is with a student identification system, something that California has promised for years but never delivered. If Spellings is committed to meaningful dropout figures, she will require — and fight to fund — student identification throughout the nation. An important side benefit of student tracking: It allows states to measure actual student progress year to year, a better way of holding schools accountable under the federal act than the current process.
When Spellings talks about giving the public comparative figures, she should consider whether those comparisons will hold up to scrutiny. Will states like California, which has a high school exit exam, be counted the same as states with lower expectations? After all, it’s not too hard to boost graduation rates, if that’s what the U.S. Education Department wants. Just let the students warm classroom seats for four years, then hand them a diploma, whether or not they can read. Such shenanigans were the main impetus for the school accountability movement in the first place.
Instead of narrowly defining high school graduation as four years or you’re out, Spellings should encourage schools to move away from structures that no longer hold meaning for many students, especially immigrants who struggle to learn English at the same time they’re trying to graspalgebra. Who said high school has to consist of the traditional three years and 10 months? Spellings ought to reward schools that innovate with a second, remedial “superfreshman” year, or that launch post-senior classes to help older students pass the exit exam, rather than labeling these schools as failures on the dropout front.
Spellings deserves praise for insisting that schools break down their dropout numbers to reflect which groups — black, Latino, impoverished — leave school in the greatest numbers. She seems to possess a sincere passion for improving the educational lot of poor and minority students. After years of ignoring its vanished students, Los Angeles Unified is finally paying attention. As the district tries to turn this situation around, the question is whether the federal government will be its ally or an impediment.