John Milon is a long-time grade- and high-school teacher, a parent of children in the Washoe County School District and an avid reader of investigative articles in the New York Times. Richard Siegel is a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and a creator of strong arguments and strong coffee.
So what do these two men have in common besides being teachers and taxpayers? Both are contorting their noses at the dropout and graduation rates reported by the Washoe County School District.
“The figures just don’t jibe,” Milon says.
Both educators are upset because they say the schools and the news media are comparing apples to oranges by comparing dropout rates to graduation rates—and then reporting the Washoe County School District has an extraordinarily low dropout rate but ignoring the low graduation rate.
A school’s dropout rate is the percentage of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors who’ve dropped out in a particular year. Recently, the district announced a 2.8 percent dropout rate—the best ever.
The graduation rate, however, is the rate of students who graduated with a high-school diploma from a particular class, for example, the Class of ’99 or the Class of ’02.
Milon says the confusion comes from the way the school district presents these two statistics to the public. He thinks the district’s presentation may cause some people to believe the school district is graduating more students than it is. The district’s numbers are accurate but—as statistics often are—can be misleading.
Steve Mulvenon, the district’s director of communications and community outreach, said the reason the district reports the numbers the way it does is simple: “What is reported in the accountability report is what is required by the state of Nevada,” Mulvenon said. The rules for how information gets reported starts with the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics. “With that said, our goal has to be getting every kid to graduate. We ought to strive to do that.”
Everyone agrees that graduating students is job one, but Milon and Siegel want the public, especially parents, to know how the schools are really doing with numbers that can be understood.
“Parents in the district should know what’s happening to their kids,” Milon says. “They should have a realistic knowledge of what the graduation rate is. They are entrusting the district with their children for four years, and they should know the likelihood of their success.”
It’s easy to see why people get confused. On the Washoe County High Schools Graduates and Dropouts chart for the Class of 2002, the district says there is a 71.2 percent graduation rate. On the same row, seven columns over, the document says the dropout rate in the 2001-2002 school was 3.4 percent. Where are the students who make up the remaining 25.4 percent? Some dropped out in the three years prior. Some, like special-education students, received alternative certificates.
Milon wants to see the exact numbers, and he’d like to see them produced in a way that could be compared to schools across the country.
“The dropout rate is not [cumulative] for grades nine through 12,” Milon said. “I want to know how many of the 100 kids who entered in ninth grade failed to graduate.”
Unfortunately for Milon, the district instead offers the graduation rate, which includes the graduates with a standard diploma, each year’s dropouts and all of the completers (non-standard certificates to show the student finished school). In other words, dropouts are included with other students, so it can’t be determined how many students actually succeeded—or failed.
Siegel, the political scientist, wonders why the district would want to publish confusing figures rather than simple, easily understood numbers. He believes the district has a more serious problem than it admits to.
“Unless we look at the students actually finishing, don’t ask for the dropout rate,” Siegel says. “The district should be making the point that the community faces a serious dropout problem.”
Both Milon and Siegel think the graduation rate is more important than the dropout rate, but the numbers should be easily broken down.
“The main concern of the district should be to distinguish between dropouts and failures to graduate,” Milon says.