Kentucky Tonight: Afterthoughts #1 – Getting the numbers wrong

I was honored to be a guest on Kentucky Tonight on January 28, 2013 to talk about proposals to raise the minimum high school dropout age in Kentucky to 18.

A number of interesting things came up during the discussions, and I have been doing some follow-on research as a consequence.

If you listen starting about 20 minutes and 43 seconds into the KET Webcast linked above, you can hear Stu Silberman, the President of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and a fellow guest on the show, claim:

“If you looked at the top 20 states with the highest graduation rates, 60 percent of them have dropout ages higher than 16.”

Really? Well, not based on the most current data.

I matched up the 2009-10 Averaged Freshman Graduation Rates (AFGR) for each state as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics with that state’s minimum dropout age as of one year earlier in 2008 (after all, there has to be at least a little time for increased dropout ages to take effect), which came from a new Brookings Institute report.

This table shows what I found for the top 20 states.

If you count them all up, a total of 11 states still had a minimum dropout age of 16, including five of the top six states. A combined total of only 9 states in this listing had a higher minimum age.

So, a clear majority of the top high school graduation rate states in 2009-10 still had an age 16 dropout minimum. That is 55 percent.

Only 45 percent, not 60 percent, of the states had a higher minimum age.

But, there is more.

Here is what happened when I looked at the average graduation rates for the states organized by their minimum dropout age. What a surprise!

It turns out that the states still using Age 16 for their minimum dropout age had a higher average graduation rate than Age 17 states had. In turn the Age 17 states had a better rate than the Age 18 states! Wow!

To be fair, I don’t know what numbers Mr. Silberman might have referenced. Perhaps they were from a prior year. However, the very latest data does not support his contention. The data in the tables raises very strong concerns about how well Age 18 laws really work.

By the way, I was criticized on the show last night for some other data I discussed (also discussed in this blog) because I didn’t disaggregate it for demographic differences. That actually is a legitimate concern, so I have now done some disaggregating. Stay tuned tomorrow for more on that.

Source for the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rates: Public School Graduates and Dropouts from the Common Core of Data: School Year 2009–10, National Center for Education Statistics, January 2013.

Source for the Minimum Dropout Ages: COMPULSORY SCHOOL ATTENDANCE, What Research Says and What It Means for State Policy, Brookings Institution, August 2012.