Now that I've illustrated the bulge, it's easier to explain the endless duel over graduation rates.
The number of students who receive public school diplomas each year is fairly simple to find. For numbers on each school district, OEA's District Data Profiles are especially helpful.
Dividing graduates by all freshmen
That's a common method, but it means that if a student is retained, that one student is counted against two different graduating classes. It’s a common method, but it’s misleading. It revs up an impression of crisis on a scale that doesn’t exist.
Some reports do it that way but say “Only 65% graduate within four years.” That’s closer to true, but (a) not fully accurate, (b) treating five-year graduates as complete failures, and (c) making it far too easy for those who hear it to forget the four year part and think 35% end up without diplomas.
Dividing graduates by first-time freshmen
Dividing by students who have just started ninth grade would work much better. The problem is that too many states—including Kentucky—still have their data systems set up to make that impossible.
Dividing graduates by estimated freshmen
Another method uses an “average freshman graduation rate.” That averages a ninth grade with the previous year’s eighth and next year’s tenth—and then divides graduates by that. The National Center for Education Statistics has established that doing that gets a pretty good estimate of first-time ninth graders.
Tracking individual students through to graduation
Kentucky recently switched from STI to Infinite Campus software for our student records, and one major reason is that Infinite Campus will be able to track students from school to school and produce a statewide report on how many students start and finish high school. That hasn't been possible until now, but it is coming.
Some examples of resulting numbers
Having explained the methods, here are some numbers from varied sources:
- 84% is the Census Bureau estimate of adults 18 to 24 with a high school diploma or equivalent (using the American Community Survey average of 2005, 2006, and 2007 results). That 84% includes GEDs and nonpublic school graduates--and also some 18 and 19 year-olds who are still working toward a diploma.
- 78% is the public school 2006 graduation rate from the Graduation Challenge report featured in a recent Herald-Leader editorial. That figure uses the average freshman graduation rate described above, and it makes sense in relation to the Census 84%.
- 72% is the public school 2006 "cohort survival rate" reported by the Mortenson Seminar on Postsecondary Education, which simply divides graduates by fall enrollment four years earlier and thereby counts each retained student against two graduating classes. It's sharply lower than one would expect from the Census figures.
- 65% was the 2000 version of the same Mortenson number, with the same problem. That's the source of the Chamber of Commerce 2007 statement that "Of 100 Kentucky 9th graders, only 65 complete high school in four years." The Chamber needed 2000 high school figures in order to follow-through to 2006 college results. The 65% is now misleading both because of the method and the age of the data.
We need 100% of students to finish high school. The 78% figure is credible, but only good by comparison to the 65% misleading, out-of-date figure that gets quoted too often.
[Bigger than a hat tip: my thanks again to Steve Clements and Patty Kannapel for encouraging me to convert our weekend e-mail discussion into this post.]