Public Policy Forum Blog

Graduation rates: the silent epidemic

This month a campaign to increase high school graduation rates was launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Civic Enterprises, the National Governors Association (NGA), Time, MTV, and Education Week. A summit was held in Washington D.C. May 9 that resulted in a ten-point plan, which includes a call for comparable data from all 50 states, among other things. Several organizations released new research, publications, or initiatives in conjunction with the summit, including MTV's The Dropout Chronicles, a documentary-style series following three at-risk high school students, and Education Week's cool internet graduation rate mapping tool. The Ed Week-generated map for Milwaukee is shown at left.

As a researcher who uses graduation rate data each year, the most interesting development from the summit is this push for better and more accessible data. Currently very few states, including Wisconsin, use a longitudinal method to calculate graduation rates--to attempt to follow individual students over the course of their high school years. It seems obvious that the only true graduation rate would be one that takes into account students who move, transfer to another school, or graduate early as well as those who drop out. But gathering and maintaining the neccessary individual student data is very costly and so most states choose to estimate. The result is that we don't have a handle on the true extent of the problem; thus, the "silent epidemic" moniker.

Because of this uncertainty, many researchers have come up with various ways to calculate estimates of graduation rates. One of the most prominent has been Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute, whose methods I critiqued in a 2004 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op ed piece. (Dr. Greene responded emphatically the next week.) The National Governors Association (NGA) decided to enter the fray with a better solution:

Recent debates among national researchers have focused on which data sources and calculations provide the best estimates of high school graduation rates...[NGA] move[s] beyond that debate by counting actual graduates.

In 2005 the governors of all 50 states signed the NGA's Graduation Counts Compact, promising to improve their graduation data and agreeing to use a uniform formula for calculating the graduation rate. So far only two states, Colorado and Maryland, have codefied the compact's common formula, but 39 states plan to report a graduation rate calculated with the common formula by 2010. Wisconsin plans to be in full compliance with the compact by 2009, and has made the necessary changes to the rate formula and data collection in order to be so.

The Forum tracks graduation rates for school districts in southeast Wisconsin in our annual Public Schooling report. The 2002-2003 rate, under the old formula (number of graduates divided by the sum of graduates plus dropouts for that class over the four years), was 76.7% in Racine, 89.8% in Kenosha, and 60.7% in Milwaukee, for example. In 2004-2005, under the new formula, the rate was 74.7% in Racine, 91.3% in Kenosha, and 59.9% in Milwaukee. The new formula is the number of regular graduates divided by an estimate of the total cohort group measured from the beginning of high school, expressed as a percentage. This total cohort group includes regular graduates, other high school completers (i.e. GED recipients), other students who reached the age 21 in the school year, and students who dropped out during the four years.

There is not much difference in the rates as a result of moving to the new formula, because the new formula has, unfortunately, still been an estimate of the graduation rate. The number of cohort dropouts has been estimated; all students leaving school are assumed to be dropouts, when in fact, they may be transferring to a different school or moving out of state. However, starting with 2006-2007 school year data, the state will be able to report an actual cohort rate for June 2007 graduates. Districts have been required to track and verify student movement over the past four years and will provide an actual cohort dropout count, which will greatly improve the accuracy of the graduation rate.

Thus, we will soon know whether the "silent epidemic" in Wisconsin is something to shout or whisper about.

Anneliese Dickman