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Faulty Dropout Data


Two recent reports suggest that states' methods of calculating dropout rates are understating the problem and urge more unified methods, guidelines, and tracking systems at the federal level.

Is the dropout rate an even greater problem than it appears to be? Have you noticed a similar trend in your district or state? Should the federal government be responsible for creating a more accurate graduation rate calculation procedure?


Here in the Detroit area we just went through a comparison of the Manhattan and Urban Institutes formulas vs. what Michigan currently uses as their formula. I work for a fairly small rural district and we can keep track of our students almost by name so our numbers are quite accurate. The percentages that came out of the two institute formulas were very different. We all know that numbers can do amazing things when you finagle them. I do not believe that these institute formulas are any more accurate than what we use now.

I have been telling people for years that education officials have been messing with these figures. When I taught at Adlai Stevenson HS in the Bronx back in the 80's Stevenson admitted to having a 37% drop out rate, highest in NYC. I knew it was way more than that. I was able to get into the Records Room. I looked at the number of freshmen students and the number of graduates for five consecutive years, 1983-87. On average and rounded off, there were 1600 freshmen students (big school!) and 500 graduates during those years. That would equate to a 69% dropout rate! (Sure, a small number may have gotten GED's or switched to another program and graduated from there, but the key word here is SMALL)

It is understated in my school. Administrators will do anything to avoid having a dropout. We have a program called "Recovery" where students can sit at a computer after school and make up a failed course, essentially by doing the time and not the learning. We also have an alternative learning school which was created for discipline problems. It has become the place to send students if they are not going to make it either because of poor grades or attendance. They receive elevated grades and forgiveness of absences at the alternative school--whatever it takes to pass--and then get credit for the courses and graduate. Many of us think that they could skip high school with our present system. Just give them the diploma if they come in the door.

In Missouri schools, the state's evaluation of the school district places the drop-out rate high on the list of criteria for a good evaluation. As a result, most schools have developed after school programs, Saturday school programs, Alternative School programs, At-Risk programs. Drop-out rates have dropped dramatically. The only problem is for 99% of the students we allow to use these programs, we do not teach them anything except that if you goof off and miss school and fail to take care of your responsiblities, someone will always be there to take care of the problem for you. There is little if any real teaching and learning going on in these programs. If it were not so sad, it would be funny when I hear Administrator's and other Educator's give talks where they praise these programs and how many kids it saved from being drop-outs.

When are we going to learn that to truly educate, we should be saving money by eliminating all of these programs and spending it on adult education so when these same people become serious about getting an education, we will have programs that will actually be there for them instead of high schools being "diploma factories" for student's who really have no interest in school.

The first step to improving the dropout crisis is improving accuracy of truancy and dropout data collection and reporting. California is close to having the capacity to collect and report accurate data, and it is essential that we keep moving forward. No state can afford a large population that has not graduated from high school.

This information doesn't surprise me. The administrators I've worked with avoid getting bad news from teachers (failing grades in excess of 6% of total students in classes seems to be the cutoff to avoid getting called down to revise grades in my school). Why shouldn't they avoid giving bad news to everyone else? If all the students are above average, then everyone's happy, right? Educators are no better than any other group at supervising their own performance, and since the professional groups we do belong to are unions, there is a conflict of interest at work. This is especially so when mid-level administrators are union members and political hacks.

Louisiana implemented a dropout tracking system around 1994 that replaced a system that collected aggregate data. In the first year of implementation we went from a 3-4% dropout event rate to approx. 12%. Our system examines exit codes provided by the LEAs on each student. We analyze these data across the state to determine a student's dropout status. If the school reported the student as a dropout and we can find him/her then they are removed from the count. If we cannot find the student is reported to have transfered to another public school then we add them to the count. Bad data can result in over reporting students as dropouts while reporting dropouts as transfers can under report. In Louisian we apply the NCES definition to the data. We do not rely on locals to interpret the definition and then report. There are still limitations based on the scope of the data systems and the human factor involved in the collection of these type data.

I read the whole special seriers that the Rocky Mountain News did for the Denver Public schools and was shocked at some of the stats.

The newspaper said 5,633 students started the 8th grade in 1999, only 1884 finished highschool. 21% out of the 5,633 did move to another school district though.


It just begs the question who is right when it comes to dropout rates???? We really have to get kids interested enough in learing so they can get a high school diploma.

I am currently working on a monitoring system, and I am confident that with practice, users of the system will learn to focus on the action needed (the whys) versus the measure.

I am reminded that the success of a magician is to create an illusion by creating a false focus so what's really happening goes unnoticed. If we continue to focus on the measure, then we won't notice the needs of the students (as others have pointed out).

Florida graduation rate low to increase we made it easy to pass the FCAT and gave students 6 chances. Then if they don't pass all they have to do is take the SAT. The required score for a diploma is too low to get any student into a state college.
Another is to assign students that drop to the GED program so they are not counted as a drop, There is no requirement that the student ever attend a GED class.

I feel that if the teachers, couselors, etc., care more about the children they would do better. I know that we all have our families but these children pay your pay checks so that your family could be well taken care of then why not give them the same curdosy. Sometimes all a child needs to know is that someone cares. We need to go back to the old school way when it comes to caring about the children. Don't be so quick to judge and always remeber someone helped you along your way. So lets start in the early years teaching our children to respect our elder's, after all they send more time in school than they do at home, so we are resonible for some of their actions. We cant be the parent but we can help the parent to direct there path by giving them our love,care and support, even down to the over active child we can reach out and find what seems to be the problem because after all that is the child that is really asking for help! The act no child left behind should make every educator more concern about their students.I ask each educator to take a look in the mirror have you done your very best or is it just for the pay check!

The Texas Education Agency changed their dropout rate calculation to include only 7th and 8th graders!

Tracking dropouts will not prevent them, of course.

As long as Texas, for example, continues, endlessly, to neglect its huge numbers of undereducated adults and older youth, and as long as NCLB makes its goals "unachievable," punishing districts severely for their reported dropouts-- we'll never end dropping out -- or get true data.

Do we want to have an "academic elite...survival of the academic (math-and-science, at this time)fittest," abandoning the rest, or do we want t educate all Americans to their own highest potential -- according to their natural gifts (God-given, inherited, quirks of the brain)?

Read the Education Week article on China and Big-Test (high-stakes)Education.

The focus is on the wrong thing. Any school district can reduce the drop-out rate. Does that mean we are educating the student? Absolutely not. We are cutting the drop-out rates by placing them in "baby-sitting" programs or being creative with our paper work.

Where Brenda Scott has it wrong, is that teachers do care about their students. Teachers work harder, care more, and are criticized more today than ever, and I would argue that teachers are doing a better job trying to reach every student than ever before.

What they are being asked to do is overwhelming. As an example, even Ms. Scott spoke of teaching "respect for elders". This is a classic example of what teachers are expected to do but my parents taught me that before I went to school. I would say this is learned by example. Those students who do have parents often see them show no respect to authority, teachers, the President, etc....

Until we clean up the mess with our families, it is going to make it nearly impossible to reach a large percentage of our students, that as educator's, we do care about.

The first task should be to educate people to the difference between an annual dropout rate and a four-year cohort dropout rate. The second objective should be to develop a nationwide standardized defintion of a dropout so students can be tracked across state lines when they transfer. School districts should be required to report a four-year and a five-year cohort dropout and graduation rate based on common definitions of dropout and graduation.

What we need are viable alternative programs, so that students who are unable to achieve a Regents diploma can be prepared for a meaningful job, and receive a diploma to be proud of--whether it's a local diploma or a work-study diploma, or whatever we want to call it. The updated BOCES programs are an excellent example of mixing job-related training and academics. Expecting all students to get a rigorous Regents diploma is not realistic, particularly for some students with disabilities. There are a number of students with disabilities who are too smart for an IEP diploma, but unable to earn a Regents diploma, and after repeatedly failing, they tend to drop out. There is a fine line between meaningful inclusion and unrealistic expectations.

I certainly agree that dropout prevention should CONTINUE to be a major focus in secondary education. In my area (Central Florida) and district (Lake County Schools), there are a few programs and alternatives in place that are effective in ensuring that students complete high school in SOME way.

Students who are not "making it" in regular classrooms (and yet are not ESE/Special Ed. candidates) are able to apply for placement in an in-school dropout prevention program (GAP). This program operates somewhat in a "school-within-a-school" capacity. GAP enrollment is limited to students who apply and meet certain criteria, and only takes a certain (small) number of students each year/term. This computer-centered program focuses on intensive basic skill instruction, tutorials, and practice. Students are taught by a regular classroom teacher (GAP trained/certified), and then work individually on the computers at their own pace. At the end of each GAP module, they must pass the computerized test to satisfactorily "master" the basic skills required for graduation. Not all work is done on the computer, however; students in GAP programs are required to complete many of the same projects that students in standard classrooms complete, such as writing a research paper and essays. Students in GAP also attend some regular classes, depending on their individual credit needs, and they still participate in extra-curricular classes as they wish. For example, GAP students may take culinary arts, music, or any other class...it all depends on their individual goals and credit allowances. At my school, most spend the majority of their time in the GAP classroom and opt for DCT, so that they may earn only the credits they need, and leave school to go to work.

For students who do NOT work well in a "typical" school setting at all, we also have alternative schools and academies. These schools serve students who are in danger of dropping out and possess the basic skills (and often, well beyond that) necessary to finish their high school education. These schools prepare students for obtaining their GED / high school equivalency diploma while immersing these students in programs aligned to their chosen career goals. Along with prepping them for the TABE and GED, they also teach them social and workplace skills, help them find jobs, and assist those who wish to go to community college upon graduation with admissions and entrance examinations.

"Should the federal government be responsible for creating a more accurate graduation rate calculation procedure?"

Of COURSE! Each and every student we have - traditional or alternative - represent the future of this entire country...not just the college-bound...NOT just the so-called "good" kids...but ALL of them. Failing to account for and serve each and every student we are responsible for not only fails the students themselves, but fails all of us, collectively. The more students we can reach and nurture into employable, contributing community members - the better we ALL will be in the future!!

My school has 1000 freshmen, and graduated 157 seniors. However, our drop-out rate is 2%, the same as every school in our area.

In Texas, 21,000 seniors failed the TAKS exit-level test, most failing math and science, unable to graduate or to get a diploma. ("It's assumed they'll get their GED," I was told. The GED "follows the current K-12 standard," the math stumping most -- to the extent that many give up before they take the math test.)
An MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)and Stanford graduate, a mathematician, determined that the TAKS math would be "USEFUL FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS" and that some problems would stump her! (Austin American-Statesman, July 6, and Susan Ohanian's website.)
This affects the numbers of those kept back in 9th grade for 3 years, also, unable to pass the TAKS (TAAS, TEAMS, earlier), then pushed out
The college entrance test must have the same assessment designer because those in Math remediation -- not finishing -- far outnumber those in Reading and Writing.
Did they all fail -- or are the state and the U.S.Dept of Ed failing them -- and how will we ever be able to make it up to all of them?
Also, why do you think the schools and the states "undercount" dropouts? Do you know the punishment for too many?
Use your commonsense, everybody. Stop believing the lies.

Some of the previous comments have been real eye-openers. Here in our district in rural Oklahoma, we offer alternative school for possible drop-outs, but the workload is not even comparable to what the regular ed students are required to complete. But our true reality is that we have approx. 47% Native American, 36% Caucasian, 11% African American, and 6% Hispanic. The problem, as someone stated in an earlier comment, is that not everyone is capable/has the desire to wade through the more rigorous requirements for an academic diploma (our district's term), let alone a college-bound or even a standard one. Many students, of ALL ethnic backgrounds, are truly not able to "get" the advanced math and science work that the state of OK is requiring for graduation, and the requirements keep increasing. Many drop-out from frustration and/or lack of interest. Many who stay in still complain of not really understanding what they are being taught, especially the mathematics. This is borne out by the large number of our students who have to take remedial math classes in college due to low ACT math scores or low scores on college math entrance exams.
Just stamping a law into being that says "No Child Left Behind" is admirable and visionary, but really grubbing in the trenches day-in and day-out to get that accomplished is impossible when the expectations are being raised again and again to unrealistic heights for most students, disabilities students INCLUDED!

Some of my comments in regard to Performance-based pay may be relevant here. I've dealt as many of you have with the subject of dropouts and the many and varied flaws in collection and calculation of dropout rates, graduation rates, and ranking of various states and "racial and ethnic" subgroups.

"The concept begins with a thought, a consideration that if left untested will gradually become a belief and then a truth, a linkage of cause and effect relationships that may not exist. Without a working alternative there is almost nothing to which one may turn with the exception of belief perhaps based on one's own experience - not a useful predictor of future events.

And yet we constantly see comparisons of individuals, schools, school districts, ethnic groups, principals, administrators and states as if in a competitive environment. Whereas one is awarded for simply being deemed "above-average", another is castigated and threatened for being deemed "below-average" (non-performing). Ranking of the members of a group of individuals, be they teachers or states, takes on elevated import in such a competition. Jobs, budgets and reputations are on the line; one's future may depend on who, what, when, where, why and how the specifications are established, the collection process and accuracy of the data, and the level of understanding of those in positions of authority to "set the specs".

One may question why it is necessary to award an individual, however described, based on performance. Are individuals in the position of competitors in a footrace, separated from each other and from the conditions in which they operate? Is this a healthy approach to improving the schools?

One might suggest a reconsideration of the basic belief that one of ten or fifty or one hundred teachers in a school interacting with perhaps thousands of students, administrators, counselors, law enforcement, parents and school boards, stands out from the rest.

I would suggest that performance in such conditions cannot be measured. It is not my belief - it can be shown that, given identical tasks, individuals will vary over time. It can be shown too that the same group will display variation which can be charted. A metric value today will likely have a different value tomorrow, from individual to individual, from period to period.

In your school, data may be gathered which would delineate the usual location and dispersion elements, the mean and the range being the most common. If your group are under consideration, half will be above, and half below, average, if based on a specification, a metric, a standard. Would you suggest those that are above be rewarded, and those below be fired? Think about what that means before you come to a conclusion based perhaps on one's belief, or one's experience.

At the present time laws are being discussed having to do with firing of those who "don't meet the specs." Schools have been closed because they don't meet the specs. Conversely, some have been elected because they exceeded expectations, were above average, or were otherwise deemed desirable based on one's experiences.

As for the subject in question, an interactive system (school, office, school district, State school system) will produce outcomes based upon all the components, namely the teachers, students, administrators, counselors, parents and others with whom they interface. One individual cannot be compared to another on the basis of performance, since they are interacting constantly and their activities from period to period will vary.

A standard is just another form of specification; it is meant to delimit the activities to those designated as within and without the bounds of the specification. This does nothing to improve the schools or the school system, but serves merely to reinforce beliefs, unfortunately without foundation. Too few administrators know next to nothing about their own school systems and the variation within the systems. As evidenced by administrators pitting schools against each other, they know even less about what to measure and how to measure it."

States having different statutes, rules, regulations and policies cannot rightly, and should not rightly be compared, yet this goes on all the time. Too few states and administrators make use of operational definitions in the policies and practices and methods used to collect data about their school systems. As a result, there is a great deal of slippage, flaws, error rates are too high, accuracy too low, confidence in the use of the data is too slight to be useful. The school system, by virtue of this lack of understanding, consumes its own children.

The use of a standard, or multiple standards, is a distraction based on ignorance. There is no easy way to say it. If you job depended on improving the graduation rate, you would be expected to understand both the numerator and the denominator. The same is true for the dropout rate, and for the period to period differences in various subgroups. You would be expected to work harder on meeting the specs, not on improving the school system, not on fulfilling the aim of the school system...what is it? Is it learning, or is it testing? Is it Educating or is it training?

Lots of chatter about high stakes testing, one camera shot determining a student's future; what if a student on the first day of school in the 8th or 9th grade were given a high stakes test and passed? Would they be given a diploma? Because they were good guessers, quick learners, or what? Would that be kosher?

I can't imagine anyone considering themselves a "non-performing" teacher, or administrator. But their hands are tied, their course is set, and they do the best they can with what they find.

But I have no use for those whose only response is to fall back on belief in the face of evidence indicating otherwise. Please, for the sake of those you teach or counsel, learn as much as you can about the limitations of the data that is being collected and inexpertly and perhaps improperly used. Learn about what it means to be part of a group that is deemed above or below average, so that when you are in a position to make a decision you make it based on something more robust than simply "better or worse than last month (year). Learn about the variation that exists in your school system.

What's the alternative? The same chaos that we all see daily.

John Constantine, Researcher and Quality Consultant
Cave Creek, AZ

Instead of "tracking" dropouts, we need to PREVENT them! In Title 1 schools, NCLB makes it impossible to teach students according to their learning styles, their natural ability, their interests -- all of the "methods" learned by teachers for years!

You and I would not stay in such an environment unless we were paid huge amounts of money!

Having a son who is a highschool dropout,
I have seen firsthand the effects of today's
educational system on our youth. Our state's
(California}system has taken upon itself to
educate its youth at the earliest age possible.
The problem with this, is not all children
develop at the same rate, my son started to
faulter a the fourth grade level. We put him
in special afternoon classes for extra help,but
only put him further behind due to the extra
time and work. In Eighth grade, he was refered
to one of our alternate schools, and began
receiving reduced workloads and higher
marks from remedial studies. Not once was he
held back a year for failing a grade, the
system just kept pushing him through with
easier work. In my opinion, it just
reinforced his belief that you can get easier
work and higher grades by failing.
Only now,in his 20's,is he is beginning to
realize his mistake in not completing his

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Recent Comments

  • Don Campbell/ parent: Having a son who is a highschool dropout, I read more
  • Peg Thompson Oliver, M.Ed., Dir., teacher, independent, self-paced GED: Instead of "tracking" dropouts, we need to PREVENT them! In read more
  • John Constantine/Researcher/QualityConsultant: Some of my comments in regard to Performance-based pay may read more
  • Gaye Moore/Disabilities Specialist: Some of the previous comments have been real eye-openers. Here read more
  • Peg Thompson Oliver: In Texas, 21,000 seniors failed the TAKS exit-level test, read more




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