Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/sun/31221editdroputs.html

Dropouts or graduates?
Arizona Daily Star
December 21, 2003

State schools Superintendent Tom Horne has taken the state from among the country's worst in dropout rates to above the national average in graduation rates. He turned the state's education system around simply by switching the terms of measurement.

Yet what at first appears to be an attempt to put a pretty face on a grim educational problem may, in fact, be a better tool for measuring statewide progress against national rankings.

Horne last week released figures showing that nearly 71 percent of high school students who started high school in the state went on to graduate in the state. The figure, collected during the 2000-01 school year, is 3 percentage points higher than the national average.

The other side of that figure is that the state has a dropout rate of 29 percent, which cannot be overlooked, no matter what sort of assessment is used.

The switch to graduation rates was no accident. Horne said that the state, the country and the media have fixated on dropout rates that misrepresent Arizona's accomplishments.

More importantly, the terms of measurement were inconsistent. He cited Arizona's policy to count as dropouts those students who leave school, but earn a General Education Diploma. Other states count those students as high school graduates.

In order to make Arizona's measurement system consistent with those of other states, switching to a graduation rate was essential. When that was done, Arizona found itself not at the bottom of the educational heap, but above average.

Horne is right that a lack of consistent numbers produces misleading information. For instance, school districts regularly report dropout rates in the single digits. However, single digit reports are usually a one-year "snapshot" dropout rate. School districts prefer not to report the more accurate rates of those who drop out over a 4-year period. Those numbers, especially in urban districts, can show that up to a half of students have dropped out.

In reality, accurate and consistent figures for dropout rates may not exist.

Horne insists that the state is not manipulating numbers. It simply is making "an apples-to-apples measurement," he said.

But there are a few problems with the more optimistic numbers. One is that by focusing on graduation rates, the state's horribly high 29 percent dropout rate will be ignored. That is still an abysmal and unacceptable figure.

Another problem is that the graduation rate completely ignores those who have dropped out before beginning high school.

Horne is adamant that the switch is not an attempt to overlook the dropout rates, including the even higher rates of Hispanics, blacks and Indians. He says he remains committed to enacting initiatives to improve the education and graduation rates among the minority groups.

Some skepticism here is appropriate. Horne's new methods of calculations are only as good as the commitment to provide a sound public education system. And while the state is putting on a happier face for public consumption nationwide, the dropout dilemma endures.

But if using graduates as a measurement provides a more accurate assessment along with lower numbers of dropouts, then it should be embraced.