As graduation ceremonies send long lines of students traipsing across stages to accept long-awaited diplomas, it’s at least curious that nobody can say just how successful the schools have been in making sure students finish high school.
Using Connecticut’s guidelines for calculating the high school dropout rate, only 1 in 25 Bristol students fails to graduate.
But the way the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now figures it, the real rate is nine of every 25 students – a staggering difference.
Where the truth lies is almost certainly somewhere in between. It all depends on how the figures are calculated.
Educators generally accept the argument made by many researchers that students who fail to finish high school are more likely to earn substantially less, live shorter lives and wind up in prison at alarmingly high rates.
So the issue of how many students fall short matters – not just to the children who fail, but to society as a whole.
ConnCAN, using numbers from Education Week’s Research Center, determined that only 69.2 percent of Bristol’s students graduate with a high school diploma in four years.
Bristol, on the other hand, figures its graduation rate for the 2007 class at 95.9 percent, which is higher than the overall state tally of 92.4 percent.
Why are the numbers so far apart? Mostly because they’re not counting the same way.
Education Week’s Research Center admits it “cannot distinguish between students who dropout and those who transfer to parochial, private or other out-of-district schools, and includes all such students in the category of ‘non-graduates’ of the system.”
“Any student leaving the high school for any reason is considered a ‘non-graduate’ in the Education Week analysis,” said Bristol’s superintendent, Philip Streifer.
“ Hence, a student moving to another educational program or high school would be considered a dropout and appear to have an artificially negative impact on the calculation,” he said.
In short, students who leave high school – even if it’s just to go to a different high school – are counted as dropouts in the ConnCAN tally.
That especially hurts places like Bristol, which has “a high mobility rate” since students often switch schools, Streifer said.
On the other hand, the statewide figure cited by ConnCAN is a bit less than 80 percent. That means about 1 in 8 students who apparently didn’t graduate on time at any state high school are ignored in the state calculations stating a much higher graduation rate.
The only way to be sure about the true graduation rate is to track individual students no matter where they go to see if they ultimately graduate or not. That’s an idea that education overseers are working on.
As it is, every state has its own way of figuring so there’s no reliable way to compare success rates across state borders.
So the only comparison that makes any real sense for Bristol is how it stacks up against other districts within Connecticut.
That could change, though, if the federal government can work out a system that everybody has to use.
Streifer said Bristol officials “look forward to a nationally standardized method of calculating high school dropouts” so that the analysis will be consistent everywhere.
“Until then, we will continue to follow the directions of the Connecticut Department of Education,” Streifer said.
“Graduation rates are too important an indicator of educational success to not have the most accurate data possible,” said Alex Johnston, executive director of ConnCAN.
He said the most recent student “adds to the urgency to create and fully implement a comprehensive and publicly-accessible system for tracking the progress of every public school student in our state.”
For those who are truly interested, here are some links that might help sort out the issue:
Who's counted? Who's counting? (Alliance for Excellent Education)
High school graduation rates in the United States (Manhattan Institute)
Rethinking high school graduation rates and trends (Economic Policy Institute)
Graduation counts (National Governors' Association)
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Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org