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Keeping Count of Students Who Drop Out

The new push for graduation rate standards might help more kids finish high school

Thomas Schroeder dropped out of his Palm Beach, Fla., high school but is pursuing his GED certificate.

Thomas Schroeder dropped out of his Palm Beach, Fla., high school but is pursuing his GED certificate.

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Thomas Schroeder was halfway through his senior year of high school when he decided to quit. He knew he was too far behind in credits to catch up in time to graduate with a regular diploma. In other states, school officials would count Schroeder as a dropout. But in his home state of Florida, it's as if he never left school.

Florida, like other states, undercounts dropouts and inflates its schools' graduation rates by including students who earn nonacademic credentials. (Schroeder took the test for a GED certificate in April.) Not surprisingly, no one in west Palm Beach County, where Schroeder was a student, can agree on the district's real high school graduation rate. The School District of Palm Beach County says 71.8 percent of its students graduated on time last year. But independent researchers say the graduation rate was less than 60 percent across the county and lower still for minorities and low-income students.

Such disputes over graduation rates are becoming more common. Despite the federal push for more accountability in education, there are surprisingly few reliable data about dropout rates because each state calculates its dropout and graduation numbers differently. Often the methods obscure how many students graduate and how many fall through the cracks. Accurate reporting of high school graduates "hasn't been a priority," says Daria Hall of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., independent group that works to improve education. "Some adults have been more interested in making their schools look good than making good by their students."

Education Trust was one of the first groups to show how states were padding their graduation numbers. North Carolina, for example, reported an almost perfect graduation rate in 2003 even though the rate of students who actually finished high school on time was closer to 64 percent. How? State officials counted only students who had earned diplomas and ignored everyone else. Now, the state makes calculations based on the number of students who start in the ninth grade and finish four years later—a more accurate standard. New Mexico also misrepresented its graduation rate by defining a dropout as a student who leaves during the 12th grade but not before then. Other states, including Indiana, counted students as dropouts only if they filled out withdrawal forms. Because there is no federal standard for an acceptable graduation rate, schools face few consequences.

Federal education officials are promising an end to the confusion. By the 2012-13 school year, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wants all states to calculate graduation rates using the same standard. Under that formula, developed by the National Governors Association, states can count as graduates only students who earn a regular high school diploma in four years. While the secretary's proposal doesn't set a federal graduation rate, it would require states to crack down harder on schools that fall short of meeting annual targets. Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who heads the Alliance for Excellent Education, says the federal changes are a step in the right direction. "It's important to have common calculations across school districts," Wise says.

The push for accurate graduation data could have unintended consequences, however. The NGA says 16 states have already begun using its graduation rate formula, and most other states are on track to begin reporting more accurate data by 2012. But school systems that have transient student populations but don't have adequate data systems to track students could be hurt by rigid graduation standards. Christopher Cashman, an NGA spokesman, says there should be flexibility built into a federal mandate so that such states are not unduly penalized.

A federal measure might eliminate disputes like the one in Florida that has now spilled into the courts. On March 18, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and its Florida chapter filed a class-action lawsuit against the School District of Palm Beach County. In the suit, the ACLU contends that the district has failed to provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality education" as guaranteed by the state's constitution. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of students and their parents, doesn't ask for monetary damages. Instead, it asks a judge to require the district to improve its graduation rate by an unspecified amount each year and to ensure that the graduation gaps between racial and socioeconomic groups don't grow. ACLU officials say the lawsuit is the first in the United States to challenge a district's low graduation rates.