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State graduation rates aren’t measured same

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Part of the challenge of comparing Alabama’s high school graduation rate with other those of states is that evaluators now compare apples in one state with oranges in another.

There are as many definitions of what makes a high school graduate as there are states that churn them out.

In some states, including Alabama, students in some categories simply disappear off
the graduation count radar screen because of tracking methods.

The issue comes up each summer, when national education organizations and think tanks release their annual lists of how the states rank in graduating their high school seniors. There is no national definition of what determines a high school graduate.

In the most recent graduation rate assessment of states released in June by Education Week, Alabama ranked 47th in the percentage of high school seniors who completed requirements for graduation.

While nobody expects Alabama to go from 47th to first in the next few years, state education experts say the current state counting system does not reflect what happens with some students who actually do complete high school.

Calculation methods

Changes now in the works as the state shifts to a new National Governors Association-sanctioned method of calculating graduation rates should help bring tracking methods more in line across the country. The new system should also help state educators recognize signs that a student is at risk of dropping out.

The governors association
decided to work toward a uniform measurement partly because of concerns over high dropout rates across the country.

Currently, Alabama’s tracking system does not recognize changes when students transfer to private schools, earn certificates of high school completion as special education students or move to another town or state, said Gloria Turner, Alabama Department of Education director of student assessment. Some states do.

GED

Alabama’s tracking system also does not recognize when students leave high school, but complete their studies for a General Educational Development diploma outside the classroom.

The governors association recognized the discrepancies in defining graduation nationally and adopted the new graduation guidelines as a result. Governors of all 50 states approved the guidelines, which Gov. Bob Riley said should be fully in effect by 2009.

Alabama Superintendent of Education Joe Morton acknowledges that “Alabama did not fare well” in the latest national graduation figures.

He said the state’s educational system, now flush with funds, still suffers from far too many lean years.

Morton said he hopes that when the NGA guidelines take effect, the process of comparing one state to all others will get easier.

“Historically, the states determined the graduation definition and until we get to the point where we have a common definition, the discrepancies will continue to be there,” Morton said.

‘Fuzziness’

Gloria Turner, director of student assessment for the Alabama Department of Education, said part of the graduation definition “fuzziness” in Alabama lies in what does not count for high school graduation.

Now Alabama’s graduation totals do not include students who get a certificate of high school completion and some other high school completion diplomas, the case with many special education students.

Under NGA guidelines as well as the rules for the federally mandated No Child Left Behind, students who get certificates might be counted under some conditions, Turner said.

Some states may count them as graduates now. Under Alabama’s guidelines, however, such students end up in the dropout column because they do not meet the requirements for a diploma.

Turner said the changeover to the new process takes time, but the resulting product will enable Alabama to better understand the challenges of students at risk of dropping out or leaving the system and address them.

This also means that, in the future, Alabama will know the students who leave before completing requirements for a diploma but move elsewhere, drop out altogether or transfer to private schools.

The tracking will also give educators a better idea of why students leave and be better able to make educational changes to help keep such students in school until they graduate, she said.

Economy and dropouts

2006 economic impact in Alabama of dropping out of school:

$3.2 billion — The amount in lost wages for the 12,300 students who dropped out of school in Alabama compared to their classmates who graduated.

$245 million — Medicaid and uninsured health care cost savings to Alabama had the 2006 dropouts stayed in school.

$2.1 billion — The increase in Alabama personal income if the graduation rates of black, Hispanic and Native American students rises to that of their white peers by 2020.

$53 million/year — Combined savings and revenue of increasing by 5 percent the high school graduation rate and then college attendance of males in the state. Linked to reduction in crime-related expenses because of better skills to join work force.

Alliance for Excellent Education, Alabama Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Center for Education Accountability, 2006, and Education Week 2006

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