Honest graduation rates much lower in many states

Kentucky is still two years away from being able to calculate its first, high quality high school graduation rates; however, most other states are reporting high quality rates for the first time this year.

And, there is a lot of ‘sticker shock’ out there.

Education Week reports that more accurate reports in some states like Oregon and Alabama show the true high school graduation rates are 20 points or more lower than those previously reported.

I actually don’t see Kentucky winding up in a similar position in 2014, when we finally get our first high-accuracy graduation rate data. While Kentuckians currently only get an approximate, estimated graduation rate, the formula the Kentucky Department of Education is now forced to use by the US Department of Education is a pretty good calculation, especially at the statewide level.

Kentucky already got its graduation rate sticker shock last year, when the federally mandated (to keep getting federal money) Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate formula came into use.

According to the NCLB_AFGR.xls spreadsheet for 2008 to 2010 from the Kentucky Department of Education, under the new formula, the 2008 No Child Left Behind compliant statewide high school graduation rate in Kentucky for all students (Total) was only 74.99 percent. For blacks it was only 66.80 percent.

In notable contrast, using the former, inflated formula that has now become thoroughly discredited, the Kentucky Department of Education’s Non-Academic Data Report for 2009 claimed the 2008 statewide graduation rate was 84.52 percent, nearly 10 points higher.

In a fine example of why the federal government is intruding into our state’s education business, the separate graduation rate for blacks wasn’t even released under the old reporting system.

One of the things that irks me about the current situation is that state education agencies are kind of playing dumb – as though they have not been warned for some time that their old graduation rate reports were not credible. Click the “Read more” link to learn more about that.

So, educators don’t get a ‘by’ on this one. They should have fixed the graduation and dropout rate reporting deficiencies years ago.

EdWeek’s article creates an impression that state education agencies were not really doing anything wrong with their old graduation rate reporting and their heel-dragging about getting more accurate information. I do not agree with that EdWeek slant.

For example, in one place the article says:

“At the same time, the gap between states’ old and new rates is also presenting communications challenges for some states, which are undertaking intensive efforts to explain to policymakers and the public why the rates differ.”

Why should this be a challenge? This required change was announced years ago. The reason rates dropped is that the old reports were inflated. Educators would do much better to simply admit that and move out to make the new reporting as accurate as possible.

There is more: researchers (including yours truly) pointed out since at least the mid-to late-1990s that the old graduation and dropout rate statistics states were generating were clearly flawed and untrustworthy. These well documented concerns were no secret.

In fact, by 2005 the case was so obvious that the governors of all 50 states committed to creating accurate and consistent high school graduation rate reports. Governor Fletcher committed Kentucky, by the way.

Furthermore, in 2006 the National Center for Education Statistics published a huge report titled “User’s Guide to Computing High School Graduation Rates” Vol. 1 and Vol. 2).

This massive report summarized all the available research and showed why a change to accurate reporting was needed. The information needed to start a shift to more accurate reporting was available a long time ago.

Still, a bunch of educators here and in other states dragged their heels. They had to be forced to do the right thing.
For more insight on that, consider a conversation I had with a Kentucky Department of Education person about this topic over a decade ago. After I pointed out some better and more accurate ways to generate graduation rate data, this person looked at me and blurted out, “but, that wouldn’t make the department look good.” While clearly wrong-headed, at least the comment was honest.

To sum up, I see no valid excuse for the heel dragging over the past seven years. State board of education and state agency people of that era in Kentucky and in many other states have no cover. They gave strong indications of trying to cover up an embarrassing situation (Important Note: Kentucky’s current education commissioner wasn’t around in those days).

Kentucky should have gotten more accurate high school dropout and graduation rate data a long time ago. Instead, we will be the last, or second-to-last, state in the country to finally get honest graduation rates. That is still two more years off.

It’s sad that it took federal government pressure to force the states to get honest about graduation rates. People in DC know that, and examples like this embolden them to move in on what should be our state’s own affairs. When we don’t manage our affairs properly, we create temptations the feds just can’t resist.

Going forward, our educators need to get really honest about getting good data to assess our school system’s performance. We are in a challenging time right now in this area as No Child Left Behind seems to be getting waivered away. That can create a chance for Kentucky to do some good and creative things in this area, or it may just create another leadership vacuum where hiding the truth again becomes the standard of the day. We will be watching to see which road our state’s educators choose to take.