The U.S. Department of Education has just published state-by-state high school graduation rates that are, for the first time ever, based on uniform accounting measures, according to the Los Angeles Times. California ranked 32nd in overall high school graduation rates for the 2010-2011 school year (tied with Washington, Utah and West Virginia), with only 76% of its high school students graduating on time. Iowa had the highest graduation rate, 88%, followed by Wisconsin and Vermont at 87%. Texas and Tennessee were tied for fourth with Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and North Dakota, with a rate of 86%.
While California was one of ten states with worse graduation rates in 2009 than in 2002 (others were Nevada, Connecticut, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nebraska, Arkansas, New Jersey and Rhode Island), the graduation rate between 1998 and 2008 actually climbed from 67.5% to 73%, according to a report in Thoughts on Public Education (TOPED). The TOPED article points out that in 2005 the state’s graduation rate was 78.1% and then suddenly dropped to 62.7% in 2007 and then was back up to 73% in 2008, suggesting that accounting methods, rather than pedagogy was at play. One notable factor that likely contributed to the drop between 2005 and 2007 was the implementation of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in 2006 as a new graduation requirement.
The TOPED article also notes that the U.S. Department of Education has used three different formulas for calculating completion rates in recent years and that all were flawed and skewed by politics. The most recent data is being touted by the Dept. of Ed as the most consistent and reliable to date, as it relies on the same metric from state to state rather than the previous methods which relied on self-reporting data from each state that were calculated using a variety of different methods.
The new method uses a 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which is based on the number of students who graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma (in contrast to a GED) divided by the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for the graduating class. Put more simply: the number of students graduating in four years divided by the number of students who entered high school as 9th graders. The cohort is adjusted by adding students who transfer into the cohort and subtracting those who transfer out, emigrate out of the country or die.
This still leaves considerable wiggle room for states to game the system. States can boost their graduation rates by having easier exit exams (or none at all) and fewer graduation requirements. There are also numerous ways states can also subtract out students who would be likely to drop out, thus increasing the percentage of students graduating. The Texas Tribune reports that school officials in that state have reported student withdrawals using more than twelve different “leaver” codes, several of which allow students to not be counted toward the state’s graduation rate. For example, students who are removed from public school to be home schooled are no longer counted toward the four-year graduation rate.
This is not a trivial point as Texas has both an unexpectedly high graduation rate and a documented history of cheating. The majority of states with high graduation rates (80% and above) have relatively low childhood poverty rates (less than 20%), though Texas has both a high graduation rate (86%) and a high childhood poverty rate of 27%, according to data from Kids Count. In 2006, a study by Harvard, UT Austin and Rice University determined that Texas was inflating its graduation numbers by allowing districts to not count students who left school for a wide variety of reasons. After this report became publicized, the state began using the federal definition, which still allows them not count student who leave school for a variety of reasons.
It Might Be Fascist, But At Least The Kids Are On Time
Proponents credit Texas’ creativity and innovation for its four-year rise in graduation rates, particularly its emphasis on accountability. One of these “innovations” has been the adoption of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for students by many of the state’s school districts. The RFID tags allow schools to monitor students’ every move and quickly pinpoint whether or not they are in class. This can lead to quicker and more accurate identification of truancy, one factor that contributes to students dropping out. The plan was covered by 's Threat Level blog, and has garnered increasing attention in light of a lawsuit by a student who was suspended for refusing to carry her RFID tag.
While the RFID tags may lead to more efficient reporting and improved attendance, resulting in increased revenue for schools that are funded based on average daily attendance (ADA), the RFID tags are unquestionably an invasion of privacy. They allow administrators to know how often students go to the restroom and how long they spend there. They also allow administrators to know how often and how long children meet with counselors or school safety advocates, meetings that are supposed to be privileged and confidential. This could cause some students to avoid emotional assistance or counsel when needed. Perhaps the most insidious and oppressive aspect of the use of RFID tags in school is that it conditions children to accept a world in which surveillance, social control and a lack of privacy and civil liberties are the norm.
What is the Significance of the New DOE Graduation Statistics?
The new federal formula for calculating high school graduation rates was intended to make graduation data collection uniform from state to state so that valid comparisons could be made. However, because the new formula still allows states to define for themselves what counts as a “drop out” or a “leaver,” and to create their own graduation requirements, valid comparisons are not possible.
The primary reason why graduation rates are even in the national spotlight is because of the general hysteria about our “failing schools”—a myth (or at least a gross exaggeration) that has been used by free market education “reformers” to justify the privatization of public education.
In reality, graduation rates have been steadily climbing across the nation, and they have been doing so for the past 140 years. In 1870, the first year in which records were kept, only 2% of students graduated from high school. By 1940, half of all students were graduating from high school. By 1969, 77% of students were earning diplomas. Since then, there have declines and rises in the graduation rate, with a general rising trend over the last decade.
Those who worry about graduation rates seldom look at the actual reasons why students drop out. In the 1940s and 1950s, many students were dropping out to enter the work force, raise families or join the military. Poverty has also played a large role, with lower income children entering school far behind their more affluent peers in pre-reading and other academic skills (see here and here). This gap grows over time as they have less access to enriching extracurricular and summer activities and increases the chances that they will drop out of school. Anti-poverty programs in the 1960s helped mitigate this to some extent, but childhood poverty rates began to rise again during the Reagan years and this likely contributed to the declines in graduation rates seen in the 1990s.