If You Don’t Know Where DCPS is Starting …

By now, most realize that the DC Public Schools has become a central issue to next month’s DC mayoral primary.  Since taking over DCPS in 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty has put the schools front and center.  After hiring Michelle Rhee as his schools chancellor, Fenty has regularly touted DC test score improvements and other measures to show that the schools have improved over the last two or three years.

So how does it all really measure up?  In this morning’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up

a terrific analysis of current benchmarks and measures for DC’s schools.  (And for those who aren’t paying attention, Turque regularly offers up some of the best insights on the continued schools evolution in our nation’s capital.)  Among the highlights are massive achievement gaps across the wards, including a 51-point reading proficiency gap between the poorest ward (Ward 8) and the wealthiest (Ward 3) and similar achievement gaps between black and white students, including a math achievement gap that has now widened to 58 points.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was the detailing of DC high school graduation rates.  We all know that grad rates are now the big dog in accountability.  We’ve shifted from middle school AYP to college and career ready, with the latter being measured by graduation and college-going rates.

According to Turque:

“Graduation rates: Fenty points to data showing that 72 percent of students graduated in 2009, up nearly three points from the previous year. Officials attributed the gains to stronger intervention programs and closer scrutiny of transcripts to make certain students have the credits to finish.

But the Office of the State Superintendent of Education uses what many experts call a flawed method for calculating high school completion. The formula divides the number of graduating seniors by that same number plus those who have dropped out in the previous four years. Analysts say a better way to track graduation rates would be to measure the percentage of ninth-graders who graduate within four years. D.C. officials say they are planning to switch to the more widely accepted “cohort” method. That would probably show a less-rosy picture. Education Week this year estimated the District’s 2007 graduation rate at about 59 percent.”

Eduflack must admit it.  I was floored to read the formula that OSSE uses to determine high school grad rates.  How can one calculate graduation rates by first EXCLUDING the number of students who have dropped out of high school?  Eduflack doesn’t have to be a statistician to know that DC is simply calculating the on-time graduation rate.  Of those students who remain in high school for four years, 72 percent earn their diploma in that time.  It is presumed that others will earn a diploma in five or even six years.  Laudable, indeed, but it is not the graduation rate.

You’ve heard it here before, but I’m going to get back up on my high edu-horse.  Back in 2005, the National Governors Association got every single state to sign onto the Graduation Counts Compact and a common graduation rate formula.  The formula is simple.  Look at the number of ninth graders enrolled in school.  Four years later, look at how many students earned a regular or advanced diploma.  Divide A by B, and you have the graduation rate.  Rinse and repeat.

We always seem shocked by the great disparities in high school grad rates, depending on who is reporting what.  Urban districts like DC tend to paint far rosier pictures than doom-and-gloomers like Jay Greene.  But can anyone really question the need for one, single, common graduation rate formula?  As we try to evaluate school districts and states and determine ROI for our school investments, don’t we need a single measure that let’s us compare apples to apples?

Yes, DC can point to improvement.  Test scores have increased.  Enrollment levels have stopped dropping.  The city is investing in facilities and in improving special education options.  But one can’t adequately address progress if one doesn’t have a clear starting point. 

Earlier this month, Eduflack congratulated Detroit for pulling back the curtain and showing their true schools data, warts and all.  Perhaps it is time for Fenty, Rhee, and DCPS to do the same.  There is a huge difference between a stated 72 percent grad rate and a likely actual 59 percent graduation rate.

Years ago, baseball philosopher Yogi Berra wisely said, if you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there.  That sage advice couldn’t be more true for school improvement.  Equally important is knowing where one is starting.  You can’t get to your destination if you don’t know the true starting point.

8 thoughts on “If You Don’t Know Where DCPS is Starting …

  1. DC should use the standard graduation formula that the states have adopted. While the current rate would undoubtedly change for the worse, the real question still would be: under that formula for previous year has the graduate rate gone up during Fenty/Rhee period?

  2. I went to public high school so my math may not be up to snuff. It seems to me your proposed graduation rate formula is a tad too simplified. You suggest “The formula is simple. Look at the number of ninth graders enrolled in school. Four years later, look at how many students earned a regular or advanced diploma. Divide A by B, and you have the graduation rate.” I believe that formula would not adequately account for students transferring out of or in to a particular high school. Am I missing something?

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