"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, March 21, 2008

Using Dropout Rates to Punish the Poor

A black male student entering 9th grade in an urban high school has a 50-50 chance of getting a diploma four years later. This fact has been submerged for years in Byzantine attendance tracking systems in most states, and with the pressures of NCLB, schools now have a new perverse incentive to push out additional low fliers who threaten a school's AYP status.

I am all for stating the facts as they exist, but now the privatizers want to use the facts to pile up sanctions on the most vulnerable schools, to undercut public support, and to charterize those schools that suffer most under generations of educational debt. Those who are owed the most, then, must continue to pay the debt with their support of cheap charter chain gangs or cheap vouchers paid for with corporate tax breaks. These are the school choices that the econ-anthropists offer in the name of social justice.

A clip from the NY Times:

JACKSON, Miss. — When it comes to high school graduation rates, Mississippi keeps two sets of books.

One team of statisticians working at the state education headquarters here recently calculated the official graduation rate at a respectable 87 percent, which Mississippi reported to Washington. But in another office piled with computer printouts, a second team of number crunchers came up with a different rate: a more sobering 63 percent.

The state schools superintendent, Hank Bounds, says the lower rate is more accurate and uses it in a campaign to combat a dropout crisis.

“We were losing about 13,000 dropouts a year, but publishing reports that said we had graduation rate percentages in the mid-80s,” Mr. Bounds said. “Mathematically, that just doesn’t work out.”

. . . .

Governors also stepped in, worried that schools were not preparing the work force their states need. In December 2005, all 50 agreed to standardize their graduation rate calculations, basing them on tracking individual students through high school.

Fifteen states have begun to use the formula, said Dane Linn, director of the education division at the National Governors Association. And it has produced some stunning revelations.

In North Carolina, the rate plummeted a year ago to 68 percent from 95 percent. The News & Observer in Raleigh likened the experience to the shock of hearing a doctor diagnose a terrible illness.

“But now doctors can start treatments that can lead to a cure,” the paper said in an editorial.

Mississippi is among the states that have become the most serious about confronting their dropout problem, Mr. Linn said.

The state has been building a record system capable of tracking student data from year to year, and in 2005 used it to estimate a graduation rate of 61 percent, 24 points below the official rate.

Mr. Bounds took office that fall and was initially consumed with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But he eventually had time to pore over the data.

“It was time to boldly confront the facts,” he said.

Mr. Bounds has used the new figures to persuade the Mississippi Board of Education to require school districts to prepare dropout prevention plans. Last month he told 2,000 community leaders that the state’s dropout crisis was like “a Katrina hitting our schools every year.”

The state will eventually report the lower rate to Washington but has set no schedule, Mr. Bounds said. One problem, he said, is that when Mississippi sends revised rates for its more than 200 high schools, their success levels will appear to plummet and many schools could be exposed to sanctions.

“It’ll look like everybody has dropped, when actually everybody’s doing a better job,” Mr. Bounds said. “But we’re capturing the right score on the scoreboard.”

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