Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings created quite a media event when she came to South Carolina on Oct. 28 to decry our latest national disgrace: The inability of public schools to graduate more students. Her remarks garnered front-page headlines in state newspapers, including the Oct. 29 Herald. The Herald editorial staff was so impressed, they dedicated a supportive editorial to the cause of dropout reduction on Nov. 7.
Together, government and the media are about to hang a second albatross of misinformation about public education around the public's collective neck.
The first was the transformation of College Board SAT scores into a measure of school quality. As soon as results are released, our news media convert them into a baseball-style scorecard featuring local schools. and publish or present them to the public, all in spite of the fact that the College Board states emphatically that SAT scores are only a predictor of the individual test takers potential of success in the first year of college and that scores are not intended for school-to-school comparisons.
Nonetheless, the media forge ahead every year with eye-popping headlines and many a state legislator has and will cry out that South Carolina has the worst education system in America -- based solely on school-to-school and state-to-state SAT comparisons. It must sell papers, attract viewers, win elections and serve some political cause.
On Oct. 28 and Nov. 7, Secretary Spellings, The Herald and the Associated Press all addressed South Carolina's 73 percent graduation rate and the corresponding need to reduce dropouts.
What was completely overlooked by the media was a Nov. 6 release of the latest school dropout data by the S.C. Department of Education. That document shows the dropout rate for South Carolina as 3.8 percent.
One of my favorite phrases is: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see" that something is amiss when the graduation rate is 73 percent and the dropout rate is 3.8 percent. And yes, something is truly amiss.
The graduation rate referred to by Spellings and used by the media is quite an interesting statistic. It is, as it turns out, not a true graduation rate at all. It is a dubious count of how many students entering a given public high school receive a state high school diploma four years later, plus or minus any transfers. Huh?
Here are some of the interesting variations that count against this so-called graduation rate.
1. Students who receive a high school diploma, through any venue, more than four years after they enter high school, count against this so-called graduation rate.
2. Students with severe brain damage, autism and mental retardation, and thus not capable of getting a high school diploma, all count against this so-called graduation rate.
3. Students who transfer to other educational settings without SDE approved documentation count against this so-called graduation rate.
4. Students who go to adult education and receive GED diplomas count against this so-called graduation rate.
5. Students who are arrested by law enforcement and removed from their home schools count against this so-called graduation rate.
6. Students who are expelled for crime or misconduct count against this so-called graduation rate.
7. Students who transfer into a district for as little as one day and then drop out count against the receiving district's so-called graduation rate.
What Spellings, No Child Left Behind, the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, and the National Governor's Association are really talking about is on-time graduations.
That fact is overlooked, at best, and ignored, at worst, by the media. If it were scrutinized, a whole new discussion might emerge.
As a measure of what schools should strive to achieve, the on-time graduation rate has little value. Educators must be committed to getting every child to reach his or her fullest potential. For some students, that doesn't even include a high school diploma. For others, it may include extra time to graduate, less time to graduate, or an alternate diploma.
Penalizing schools, by using on-time graduation rates for accountability, flies in the very face of the same government that operates and pays for adult education programs. State governments promote adult education and GED diplomas as a significant alternative to dropping out. Many employers, the military, tech schools, and four-year colleges all accept the GED. How does a government that promotes the GED, penalize schools when their students receive them? I can't help but wonder what Dr. Franklin Story Musgrave, an American doctor, retired astronaut, and yes, GED recipient, would think.
Using the on-time graduation rate as an accountability measure further penalizes schools for creating a safe environment by expelling juvenile criminals. The on-time graduation rate simply implies that schools are responsible for graduating every student, and no one wants to hear any excuses to the contrary. That concept unfairly places every social malady confronting our society squarely at the feet of schools to solve.
Reducing dropouts is an important and complicated problem. Juvenile delinquency and juvenile crime may play a large role. In the latest data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, schools averaged 46 crimes a year per 1,000 students; 24 percent of students reported gangs operating at their schools; 36 percent of students in grades 9-12 had been in a fight; 6 percent of students reported carrying a weapon on campus in the past 30 days; 20 percent report using marijuana in the past 30 days; and an astonishing 43 percent of high school students reported they used alcohol in the past 30 days.
These are seriously alarming statistics. If, as the data implies, school crime and juvenile delinquency contribute heavily to student dropouts, government may have to rethink the path to solving the problem.
Given those statistics, our educators have still produced an on-time graduation rate of 73 percent nationally. Now that's a headline!
It is hard to understand how an on-time graduation rate figures into that equation. The NGA and Secretary Spellings would have been better to advocate for national data on the common characteristics of true high school dropouts. If they did, it is doubtful they would find solutions start with schools. Real answers may be much more likely to start with parents, social services, and law enforcement.
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