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Georgia Schools Deceive on Dropout Stats

Playing with the school year apparently isn’t the only way schools are looking to game national rankings systems. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Georgia’s high school graduation rate just fell from 81 percent to 67 percent in one year. The steep drop-off is explained by changes in federal rules for reporting dropouts. Under the old rules, schools were able to count students who left before graduation as “transfers” without having to check whether these students actually enrolled elsewhere after leaving. The new federal requirements no longer allow this practice, so Georgia’s dropout rate has gone from surprising success story to one of the worst in the nation:

“They spent more time trying to fix the numbers, than they did trying to fix the problem,” said Cathy Henson, an advocate for education reform and former state Board of Education chair. “My frustration is that if you’re giving people phony data, then they don’t understand the magnitude, the urgency of the problem.”

This looks like yet another cheap trick, unworthy of a responsible education administrator, as well as more proof, if more were needed, that we should not take these kinds of self-reported educational performance numbers at face value.

The centralization of power and the growing federal role in elementary and secondary education has created system wide incentives for lying, cheating and hiding the truth. Schools and even states are gaming the system in ways that are breathtakingly dishonest and do grave disservice to the interest of students.

Parents and community groups generally know what is going on in local schools better than remote administrators and bureaucrats who cluelessly process sketchy statistics. While this isn’t the answer to every school problem in the country, looking wherever possible to put authority back in the hands of those who understand the local situation best and who have the greatest stake in the success of the schools seems like a worthwhile idea.

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  • Jeremy, Alabama

    It seems like there really is no substitute for having parents involved. Federal involvement achieves nothing, slowly.

    Parents who care keep abreast of sites like GreatSchools. They treat federal metrics as one input to the decision process, but they also use other research such as first-person testimony and anecdotes.

    Parents who care will then move house to get into a good school district. Unfortunately for the poor, even the caring ones, moving house is difficult to do. It is a shame that poor people tend to vote for the political party that is vehemently opposed to vouchers.

  • Jim.

    Absentee leadership just isn’t as effective.

    Most people in this country think Hollister, California is a beach town. It’s actually an inland farming community — a suburb of Gilroy, “Garlic capital of the World”. It’s where middling successful Silicon Valley types build their retirement homes.

    But the marketers and promoters got ahold of it, and started trying to spruce up the image a bit, with a massive program of deceit.

    It takes a local — or at least someone close by enough to drive through town every so often — to know better.

  • Chris Bolan

    Yes, this behavior is reprehensible. However, if it weren’t for the new federal requirements, the scale of the deceit would not be apparent. Moreover, you seem to assume that the ‘federal role’ is somehow displacing ‘parents and community groups’. I don’t see that happening. School boards continue to be elected, parents’ organizations such as the PTA continue to be active, and yet schools are failing nonetheless. Lastly, as you suggest, local boards and groups can also act as obstacles to educational progress as witnessed in cases where local activists seek to repress the teaching of evolution in science class, curtail discussions of climate change, etc.

  • thibaud

    Cheating is a Bad Thing, agreed. Cheaters never prosper etc.

    But in the context of assessment and testing, what, exactly, does Mead have in mind when he says “wherever possible to put authority back in the hands of those who understand the local situation best”?

    Does he mean that local PTAs should design tests for their schools? Or that they should be the ones to choose among tests that others design?

    New Jersey alone has over 600 school systems. As a social scientist, perhaps Mr Mead could tell us how one would make valid comparisons of school effectiveness across hundreds of different testing regimes.

    There’s also the question of whether many of the individual tests themselves would have any validity.

    And what evidence is there to suggest that the risk of doctored results would decline if local parents were in charge of the process?

    PTA members indeed “have a stake” in the highest possible test results, given that property values in metropolitan areas are often correlated with schools’ test scores. If homeowners can boost their real estate values by promoting the local school as having top scores, wouldn’t the pressure to cheat, or to select easily-gamed fluff tests, be all the greater?

    Mr Mead is once again stepping way outside the sphere of his expertise and applying a silly anti-centralization bias that, in this case especially, makes no sense.

  • gooch mango

    The situation is even worse than this.

    The way the government counts drop-out rates is by comparing freshman enrollment with graduation rates. So if a kid never starts high school in the first place, they never show up as a drop-out.

    You might say, “So? How many elementary school drop-outs could there be in this day and age?” Well, according to professors Gandara and Contreras of UCLA in their book The Latino Education Crisis, in some US cities the rate is as high as 15% – 20% among Latinos… including 2nd and 3rd generation students. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the same is true amongst other subcultures as well.

  • Luke Lea

    If Georgia is like other states one cause of higher dropout rates is requiring higher academic achievement than below average students can meet. Thus instead of giving them a diploma and the education they need we do neither.

    Just one more example of what happens when a democracy abandons the bottom half its citizenry, pretending they don’t exist. How can I leaders honestly look themselves in the face. Do they prefer more welfare, more dependency, disfunction, criminality and despair?

    Or do they fear the ire of their peers if they say something politically incorrect, in this case that fifty percent of the population is below average? I think the latter.

  • John Burke

    I’m with Chris. Local school boards are still running the school districts under state supervision. I strongly suspect that the data reported to the feds was not deceiving anyone at the local level who was paying attention to their high schools. Only federal bureaucrats and “reporters” were misled.

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