Is there any more common sense statistic to measure the success of public schools than high school graduation rate? It certainly sounds simple and clear: What percent of the students who should have gotten a high school diploma actually got one? In reality, there are lots of decisions that go into how that rate is calculated—who counts and who doesn’t count and who can legitimately be taken out of the equation. But no one wants to see a headline like this for his or her own school district: “Chicago Public Schools downgrades four years of inflated graduation rates” (reported by Juan Perez, Jr., in the Chicago Tribune, October 2, 2015).
To start with, it sounds as though there might have been some funny business going on. “Inflated” doesn’t have a particularly good connotation. Maybe the funny business was really just a series of misinterpretations by school staff of the rules for figuring the graduation rate, but maybe it was a series of intentional steps designed to report a graduation rate higher than it actually was. For example, the inspector general for the Chicago Public Schools, who issued the report, pointed to a high school that counted students as “transfers” instead of “dropouts” when they left their high school to enroll in a GED program (an alternate route to earning a high school diploma for students who leave high school, for whatever reason, before getting a diploma).
The adjustments that had to be made in the Chicago count lowered the 2014 graduation rate from 69.4 percent of students to 66.3 percent of students. Yes, not such a big drop. And, in fact, the graduation rate had been going up a little bit each year for several years—even though all of those years saw a small drop, based on the recalculations—just as Mayor Rahm Emanuel claimed in his recent successful re-election bid. But, let’s be clear: All of those figures are a five-year graduation rate, not a four-year graduation rate, which is what you might have expected to see.
Once numbers are called into question, it is hard to believe any of them again. Should you feel somewhat more certain after the kind of audit that the inspector general did in Chicago? Probably so. Here is one point of comparison: The graduation rate for the New York City Public Schools was 64.2 percent in 2014—but that was a four-year graduation rate.
I can tell you that it is not easy to keep track of every student in every high school in a huge school district—or even in a small one. Or even in one school. I did that tracking for students in the high school I helped to co-found in New York City, and I calculated the graduation rate for our first class of students. It was important to us because we had created an innovative accelerated schedule that had students on a three-year—not four-year—path to completing all of their high school graduation requirements. We needed to know whether our ambitious program worked. It did. With average and below-average New York City public school students, we produced a three-year graduation rate of 65 percent with our first class of students. That graduation rate meant that we did in three years what the rest of the New York City public high schools, as a group, did in four years.
I can also tell you from experience that graduation rates mean a lot to most high schools and school districts—just as they do in Chicago. A colleague and I were once at a national meeting of high school administrators of innovative high school programs. We overheard one conversation about graduation rate, which ended something like this: “Well, when we have a student who is about to drop out, we just send that student home and count him as being homeschooled. So then he’s not a dropout!” It is conversations like that one that make some of us skeptical about data that school districts provide, especially when those data can be used to judge the education that the school district is providing.
It is time to take a close look at the graduation rate and how it is calculated for the students in your high school and in your school district (if you have more than one high school):
- All parents: Ask your school board to have the superintendent explain how the graduation rate is calculated. Is the board satisfied with the graduation rate or not? How does it compare to the graduation rate in neighboring school districts or in similar school districts in the state or in the country? How does it compare to the state’s high school graduation rate? What is the trend in your district’s graduation rate—that is, is it going up, going down, or staying about the same? Make sure you understand whether it is a four-year or five-year rate. What does your district do to prevent students from dropping out? This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study background information before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators before and/or during the meeting.
- High school parents: Ask your principal to discuss the graduation rate in your child’s high school. Where are dropouts going—to GED programs, to vocational training programs, to work, or somewhere else? How are parents kept informed if their child might be on a path to dropping out? What should parents do if they are worried that their child might drop out? How do dropouts and potential dropouts affect the rest of the school and its programs?