What are the real dropout numbers?

John P. Milon is a longtime educator.

We have grown accustomed to hearing about the creative bookkeeping of corporate entities like Enron. Perhaps we need to get accustomed to imaginative data collection on the part of educational entities as well. Our own Washoe County School District has done some creative data reporting about dropout rates on their Web site.

The latest information posted on the WCSD site reports an overall dropout rate for high schools in 2001-2002 of 3.4 percent. At a time when similar-sized school districts with similar populations routinely report dropout rates in the 20-30 percent range, a 3.4 percent high school drop out rate is miraculous. But if it is a miracle, it’s a transparent one.

In the United States, “high school” is understood to be a four-year course of study that leads to a diploma. When schools report dropout rates, they do so within the framework of the standard four-year course of study.

Researchers who study the dropout problem determine how many students entered ninth grade in District X in a given September. Next, they examine records over the subsequent four years. Investigators look for documented transfers into and out of the district, transfers within the district, switching to home schooling, etc. They then determine how many students in that cohort graduated from 12th grade four years later.

The basic process is simple, but there are complicating factors. For example, each state or district has to decide whether students who completed the required number of credits in four years, but failed to graduate because they did not pass the proficiency test are counted as dropouts. Those kinds of questions can result in “messy” data, but the data are easy enough to keep clean if the system is consistent.

The WCSD reports on dropouts in a way that contributes to the data’s messiness. The figure the WCSD labels the “overall dropout rate” is actually the average dropout rate per year in a four-year process. By giving a snapshot of one-fourth of the data rather than reporting on the four-year program, the WCSD Web site misleads.

For example: One hundred couples marry in 1980. Five couples divorce in the fourth year and five more in the fifth year. In 1985, the overall divorce rate would have been reported as 10 percent, not 2 percent. It makes no sense to report average yearly divorce rates as “overall divorce rate” because marriage is understood as a lifelong commitment.

All taxpayers in Washoe County have a right to know what the actual high school dropout rate is in WCSD—meaning, how many kids start high school but don’t finish. It is misleading for the WCSD to claim that the "overall dropout rate" in 2001-2002 was 3.4 percent. The actual dropout rate in WCSD for any given four-year cadre is probably in the 20-30 percent range.