Grad rates trending up – or down

If California’s graduation and dropout rates were a pair of jeans, they’d have an “irregular” sticker on them. Sure, social science research has a reputation for squishy results, but it’s still a bit jarring when a renowned researcher describes certain data as “bogus.” Although he said it with an ironic laugh, that was the first word that popped into Russell Rumberger’s mind when I asked him about the California high school graduation rates in “Diplomas Count,” an annual report from Education Week.

Rumberger is an education professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara, where he founded the California Dropout Research Project and has been conducting research on school dropouts for 25 years. His new book on the subject, Dropping out: Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it, is due out later this year.

A sharp dip followed by a sharper rise

Where California stands nationwide in graduation rates according to Diplomas Count (click to enlarge)

Where California stands nationwide in graduation rates according to Diplomas Count (click to enlarge)

The statistics in question are in the California supplement of the report (available for purchase from EdWeek here), showing changes in graduation rates between 1998 and 2008. For much of the time they’re fairly stable, from a few tenths of a point to a little over one percent from year to year. Over the course of the decade, California’s graduation rate increased from 67.5 percent to 73 percent, staying close to the national average. But in between there’s a dramatic shakeup and recovery.

It started in 2005, when the state’s graduation rate was 70.1 percent. Within two years, by 2007, it had fallen to 62.7 percent, the sharpest decline in the ten-year period. A year later, in 2008, it surged back up by more than ten points to 73 percent. “Pretty wild,” said Rumberger. “The bottom line is all these numbers are estimates, and estimates have errors.”

California runs its own numbers, and they’re quite different. Actually, California runs two sets of numbers,

Diploma Counts shows a sharp drop in Calif graduation rate not seen in other analyses (Click to enlarge. Courtesy Bob Nichols, SVEF)

Diploma Counts shows a sharp drop in Calif graduation rate not seen in other analyses (Click to enlarge. Courtesy Bob Nichols, SVEF)

but more on that in a moment. The official statistics that the state sends to the U.S. Department of Education, for No Child Left Behind reporting, show a downward trend between 1998 and 2008, falling from a high of 87 percent to about 80 percent. But even at their lowest point, those graduation rates are still higher across the board than EdWeek’s figures.

And just to complicate it a little more, that second set of numbers that California prepares has graduation rates heading up after a 2006 downturn, but coming in lower than EdWeek. So we have three sets of calculations, all using data from the same source, obtaining different results and different trends.

It’s all in the formula

It’s no better nationally. Rumberger recently served on a committee of the National Research Council and National Academy of Education that examined the various measurements that states use to determine their graduation and dropout rates. The committee found “widespread disagreement” about the best measurements and their uses. Looking at the year 2005, the committee found three different school completion rates published by the U.S. Department of Education, Editorial Projects in Education (a project of EdWeek), and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Some researchers suspect the problem is with the way the rates are calculated and not with the numbers used to make those calculations.

In its final report, the panel found most formulas to be flawed and occasionally skewed by politics. “At a time when policy makers are vitally interested in tracking the incidence of dropping out of school, they are faced with choosing among substantially discrepant estimates that would lead them to different conclusions regarding both the size of the drop out problem and how it has changed in recent years,” they wrote.

The most common calculations are aggregate counts, the cumulative promotion index (CPI), and cohorts. Aggregate is the simplest and bluntest, comparing the number of graduates to the number of ninth graders four years earlier. The CPI is based on how many students progress from grade 9 to 10, 10 to 11, 11 to 12, and then ultimately graduate. Karl Scheff, with the California Department of Education, says CPI is better than aggregate but still doesn’t get at what happens to individual students. That’s the true cohort measure and it’s the brass ring of data.

Calling on CALPADS

California has been collecting this data for five years, ever since assigning individual student identifiers as part of the CALPADS student data system.  Up until now, even though districts have been sending in student-level data, the state has still been aggregating it.  “We just added them up and plugged them into the traditional calculation,” said Scheff.  This year should be the first time they have a full cohort of students from grade 9 through graduation, but now funding for CALPADS is up in the air.

Gov. Brown proposed cutting the budget for CALPADS in his May revise.  Both the Assembly and Senate have restored the money but Scheff says it’s not clear whether the Governor will veto it.  With CALPADS, state officials will have a robust data source that can track students who move out of

"The actual rate is somewhere in the middle," says Russell Rumberger of the California Dropout Research Project (click to enlarge)

"The actual rate is somewhere in the middle," says Russell Rumberger of the California Dropout Research Project (click to enlarge)

state, transfer to a private school, or spend a fifth year in high school in order to provide a much more precise look at graduation and dropout rates.

Until then, we’ll have to sort through two, three or four reports each with its own interpretation of the data.  Rumberger tries to be as precise as possible when giving presentations.  “I’ll show the two state rates,” he said, “and what I tell people is the actual rate is somewhere in the middle.”

Additional Resources:

A More Accurate Measure of California’s Dropout Rate, June 2010, California Dropout Research Project.

Independent Evaluation of the California High School Exit Examination: 2010 Evaluation Report, Volume 1, Oct. 2010, Human Resources Research Organization

Public School Graduates and Dropouts From the Common Core of Data: School Year 2008-2009, National Center for Education Statistics

This entry was posted in Data, Dropout prevention and tagged , on by .

About Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

6 thoughts on “Grad rates trending up – or down

  1. Michael G.

    Thank you for this blog and for the references.  I followed through to the California Dropout Research Project which led me to the Hechinger Report which led me to the article “What can we do about the dropout problem” here:
    And found this amazing analysis of 3 cities with dropout problems – Philadelphia, NYC, Portland OR.  NYC is the most successful in fixing it despite high concentrations of poverty.  Why?
    “In New York, Klein has fostered an atmosphere of high expectations and accountability: every student is presumed capable of getting a diploma, and schools are measured and rewarded based on that assumption.
    “In Portland, the opposite has been true. Dropouts and at-risk kids, especially those in the city’s alternative schools, are coaxed into showing up in class, not challenged to actually graduate, and almost no adults are held accountable for results. (On the expectations-and-accountability front, Philly is closer to the New York model, and so is its level of success.)”
    Wow!  High expectations? Holding adults and schools responsible!?  Where are the “inspiring teachers freed from test pressure to bring out the creative aspirations of enthusiastic self learners.”  Where is the endless whining “we can’t teach until the US eliminates poverty like little (pop = 5 M) Finland”?  Poor minority kids graduating because there are consequences for adults if they don’t!  The mind boggles!
    For Ravitch’s latest exhorting the US to eliminate poverty like Finland and Singapore (ignoring Germany and England who have not eliminated poverty) and why it’s everyone’s fault except the education establishment see here:
    Now I applaud the idea of eliminating poverty, but saying we have to wait until that happy day to fix education in the US??  And ignoring countries that have similar problems to the US while holding as models tiny countries with smaller populations than LA?
    Thanks again for the links.  It is very inspiring that there are smart people out there trying and succeeding in fixing problems in challenging areas with populations under great stress.   Instead of whining that the problem is difficult (undeniable) and that it involves poor folk whom I have heard are always with us.

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  2. Pingback: Graduation rates rise, but nearly 140,000 won’t finish high school

  3. Bruce William Smith

    For comparison purposes, I checked to see how the UNESCO Institute for Statistics calculates this, and found that they check what percentage of a given cohort (most easily calculated as people born in a given year) have graduated by the age when this is normally accomplished (presumably age 18 for the United States). Given this approach, which is closest to the aggregate method above but may include private schools and alternative certifications like the GED, the U.S. average was reported in 2005 at 73.0 percent, “somewhere in the middle” of the two lines for California above. Interestingly, the U.S. average was below that of the OECD, and the U.S. was the only country reported to have no vocational education schools available to upper secondary students, but only general, comprehensive secondary education. One must wonder how many of these dropouts might be saved if they had available to them programs that all would clearly consider to be plausibly leading to paid employment immediately upon graduation.

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  4. Jim Mills

    Bruce’s point deserves careful consideration.  In many districts, students find essentially two academic paths: college prep and college prep “lite”, the latter focusing on much of the same content as the former, but in such a watered-down fashion that it could never offer those students legitimate preparation for college.  Even among the “college bound”, there seems to be a large disconnect in preparation or aptitude (or both), as the degree completion rates for our college students are even lower than what we see for high school.  Too many students who are not suited for college — and too many students who think they are — are ill-served by this system.

    As parents, most of us know the kinds of kids who are especially hurt by this “one-size-fits-most” approach — the reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-socialized kids who don’t want to sit through another class in history or advanced math.  They want to get out and do something now.  If we could allow them exposure to work and careers that interest them, they might even see, eventually, the relevance of some of the higher-level classes that could help them advance in a field that they have chosen.  (I recently visited a high school engineering academy where students were returning to higher math topics that they had previously avoided, because they saw how they needed that work to complete their projects.  Interestingly, the class was almost entirely male.) 

    Instead of encountering work designed to engage the “non-college bound”, many of these students either leave school, or perform so poorly that their high school degree means little.  They then bounce around among unskilled jobs and frequent bouts of unemployment.  Some students pick themselves up in their mid-twenties or later and get post-secondary preparation, but many do not.  This paradigm represents a huge waste of time and talent, and it is perpetuated by big, single-minded school districts that seem to be able to pursue only one instructional strategy at a time (if that), yet permit no other alternatives for the residents of the district.

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  5. Bruce William Smith

    I agree whole-heartedly with Jim’s comment. While we have been pursuing this ideal of secondary school graduates “college and career ready”, we have been producing too many young people who are neither. An alternative model we should study is that of the “dual system” employed with much success in northern and central Europe (roughly from Norway to Switzerland, including Finland to the east), so that a considerably larger number than at present emerge from our secondary schools genuinely college ready, and the rest emerge with well paying jobs lined up by graduation day. If others can do that, I don’t see why we can’t.

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