Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gaining on high school attainment

The youngest Kentucky adults are very close to the national average in high school completions. Because older Kentucky residents finished school less often, we are still behind for adults overall. Here are the numbers:


  1. The biggest problem with these Census figures is that they count GEDs the same as regular high school diplomas. It’s a key problem because there is widespread consensus that a GED does not represent nearly as much education, not in Kentucky or anywhere else.

    Susan, do you know what proportion of US and Kentucky graduates have regular high school diplomas? I do know that recent awards of GEDs in Kentucky to younger citizens have been significant, probably boosting our rate in the figure by about 10 points, but I don’t have exact numbers available.

  2. Why do these numbers look higher than the usual graduation numbers? I thought I’d seen numbers below 70%?

  3. Cindy,

    Thank you for a good question. I've seen similar numbers, and I think I understand what's happening.

    Say you have 40,000 graduates. If you divide that by 50,000 students who started ninth grade four years earlier, you get 80%.

    But if you divide it by 50,000 students who started four years ago plus 5,000 who started five years ago and were retained, you get 73%.

    The second way means that a student who can only graduate once is counted as a ninth grader twice. It's a double count. It overstates the number we really lose. It's also the method used in the numbers we hear quoted most often.

    Why do they do it that way? Because it's nearly impossible to get state numbers that separate out first time ninth graders from repeaters.

    Why don't they tell you they have that problem? Often, they actually say "Out of every 100 ninth graders, 73 graduate four years later." That sort of covers the issue, but it's easy for readers to assume that the other 27 never graduate at all.

    The American Community Survey used in the graph is an estimate of how many people of a given age end up with diplomas or GEDS, without asking how long it took to earn those credentials. It skips the whole puzzle about when, and how often, they were in ninth grade.

  4. Richard,

    The Council on Postsecondary Education reports a numbers in the 9,000-10,000 range for each year from 2003 to 2007, but I haven't found a source yet that divides that out by age group.

  5. Cindy,

    RE: Susan’s answer to your good question.

    The lack of a decent student tracking system here in Kentucky makes it impossible to accurately calculate a graduation rate (imagine that, after nearly 19 years of KERA).

    However, the “9th grade bulge” problem that Cindy mentions is only one issue, and overall the situation tends to work out differently from the way Cindy implies.

    It is correct, as Cindy indicates, that kids retained in 9th grade do increase the denominator of the “Freshman Graduation Rate” calculation, as it’s called, which is simply graduations divided by the fall enrollment for that same class when it started 9th grade.

    However, there also wasn’t any way until very recently to sift out the students who were shown as graduates in a given year although they actually took more than four years to get their diploma. That problem inflated the numerator.

    Furthermore, some states have reported certificate recipients, and sometimes even GED recipients, as regular graduates to the federal government, as well. That makes decent state to state comparisons with the existing federal data very problematic.

    For example, one recent graduation figure Kentucky reported to the US government seems to include all students who got a paper, not just the four-year graduates. The numbers reported in-state were different, with the four-year graduates separated from other certificate winners.

    Anyway, to counter all those problems, a number of estimation formulas have been proposed for use while states get high quality student tracking systems on line.

    Because it will still be several years at least before all states have high quality student tracking programs, the federal government sponsored research into those various graduation rate estimation formulas to determine which worked best. The study examines two states that already have high quality graduation rate reporting systems. In general, based on that federal research, it looks like the official rates being reported by Kentucky will turn out to be about 10 percent too high. Those excessively high rates agree fairly well with the rates shown in Susan’s main blog figure, by the way.

    Thus, those lower graduation rate figures you have seen elsewhere in places like Education Week are likely to be closer to the actual truth, once we finally have a way to determine what the truth really is.

    I also should note that the Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts did an audit of those official Kentucky dropout and graduation rates in 2006. Using accurate data that is accumulated while schools are in session, the auditor found Kentucky’s officially reported rates were off by at least 30 percent. However, the auditor admitted this was a low estimate because the data available only covered students who left school during the school term. Kids who leave over the summer are still not being captured in the state’s database.

    Thus, the real graduation rate in Kentucky is certainly considerably lower than officially reported by the Kentucky Department of Education, and the real dropout rate is substantially higher than reported, as well.

    Unfortunately, we are probably at least three or four years away from Kentucky producing its first accurate graduation rate figures (you need the tracking system in place for four years, and it has to be faithfully implemented, as well).

    If you want to know more, I have written extensively about this important issue, and you can find that in the Bluegrass Institute’s Web site,, and at the link with my name below.


Updates and data on Kentucky education!