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A few months ago, when we asked a random sampling of D.C. residents about the dropout rate of District public school students, their guesses actually weren't that far off. Many of them guessed that 70-80 percent of students graduate; the actual official graduation rate for 2009-2010 hovered around 76 percent.
That number was not exactly a true picture of what was going on, however; and the 2010-2011 graduation numbers prove it. D.C.'s graduation rate for the most recent school year had dropped to 59 percent.
That means just a little more than half of all D.C. public school children are graduating with high school diplomas in four years. Even more striking is the difference between traditional and charter schools; 80 percent of charter school students graduated in 2011, but just 53 percent of students at traditional schools did the same.
New calculation has widespread impacts
So why does D.C.'s graduation rate appear to have plummeted nearly 20 percentage points in a year? Because until now, D.C. used a formula researchers consider generous to calculate graduation rates. Now, for the first time, the federal government is requiring states to follow a standardized method.
The new methodology, which requires tracking students individually from 9th grade all the way through 12th grade to determine if they graduate, means states across the country will be able to compare their graduation rates accurately. Many of them are bracing for lower graduation numbers; several states that have started using the formula have already seen the rates drop.
Maryland is one of them. Using the new calculation, the state's graduation rate fell by 5 points to 82 percent between 2009 and 2010. Virginia has been using the new formula for a few years, and its rate is 83 percent.
In some states, graduation rates are in free fall. D.C. appears to be in this category; one D.C. school, Ballou STAY (School to Aid Youth) boasted a gradation rate of 99 percent two years ago; last year, under the new calculation, their grad rate was just 12 percent.
Former rates based on flawed data
To determine how this new method could result in such a steep change for the District's graduation rate, one needs to look at the extremely complicated system for calculating graduation rates, which has historically involved a lot of fuzzy math.
Just a decade ago, the percentage of students completing high school was measured using a survey conducted by the U.S. Census, and the reports were always positive, according to Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University professor and one of the nation's top experts on dropouts.
When the national graduation rate appeared to hit 90 percent, Balfanz says, researchers decided to take a closer look.
"And then you recognize that that was based on a telephone survey that doesn't include people in prison, for example, doesn't include people who don't want to talk to people who call them at night," he says. In addition, people know it's important to graduate high school, so they may say they graduated when they didn't.
"So on all sides, sort of inflating it and sort of all agreeing we don't have a problem when we really did," Balfanz says.
New method, less 'mess'
States can and have inflated graduation numbers for years using different methods. Some estimate how many students they think graduated, others count GED certificates as high school diplomas. Others only consider the graduation rate of 12th graders, without counting students who may have dropped out years earlier.
Even for Chris Chapman, author of the annual federal report [PDF] on graduation rates at the National Center for Education Statistics, the methods used to calculate the rates across the country are dizzyingly different.
"We've got the true cohort rates, we've got the averaged freshman graduation rate, we have a leaver rate," he says, with a laugh. "I'm trying to think if there are others I could describe in English."
While some might characterize the sheer variety of methods a mess, Chapman generously calls it a "mishmash." And the biggest problem with all the different calculations was that the rates couldn't be compared from state to state.
All that changes now. The new method, called the adjusted graduation cohort rate, requires states to follow every individual child from the ninth grade on until he or she walks across the stage to receive that diploma. It takes into account students who change schools and get held back. Balfanz says that will help provide a more accurate picture.
"You would see wild celebrations at the end of the year, when 150 kids would graduate," he says. "And then you would look and say, but they said they had 600 kids in 9th grade. And they are wildly celebrating 150 kids graduating."
Dropout rate not the inverse of graduation rate
To complicate matters further, the students not counted as graduates aren't necessarily categorized as dropout either. Some students may leave school and return, others may take five or six years to earn diplomas.
D.C.'s dropout rate is 7 percent under the old calculation, according to the latest data available. But that rate is expected to increase under the new calculation. Maryland's dropout rate rose from 3.2 percent to 12 percent when it switched. The Virginia dropout rate is now 7 percent.
Certain things are known about the dropout population. For example, Irizarry says, a child most at risk for dropping out in DC fits a certain profile: male, Hispanic, and has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that calls for special education services.
But beyond that, she doesn't quite trust the data. That too is about to change with the new State Longitudinal Education Database (SLED). In this new system, each child from kindergarten through 12th grade in D.C. public schools now has a 10-digit identification number.
Database will track each student's progress
The database has information on a student's date of birth, race, school, grade, test results. "English language learner status, special education status, whether they're a migrant student and it goes on and on," says Irizarry.
If a student doesn't move on to the next grade, schools have to provide specific reasons and documentation. For example, they can no longer just say a child moved to another state or migrated to another country or is enrolled in private school. They have to have the transfer paperwork.
There has never been a record this comprehensive or complete to track students, Irizarry says.
That's probably because following individual students is challenging and expensive. Often, students don't tell anyone at school they're dropping out, parents aren't always responsive, or phone numbers and addresses change. But even with all the challenges of collecting this data, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says it will provide "real transparency" which he calls "hugely important."
"Graduation rates will probably go down, and the dropout rates will probably go up, no one wants to see that happen but guess what, for better or worse that's the truth," he says. "When you have a baseline of facts, then we can learn much faster where strategies are helping to reduce dropout rates and increase graduation rates and we can transfer those best practices across states in ways that just haven't happened."
Remembering the students amid the statistics
In this complex world of calculations and statistics, Chapman, who has worked on the federal graduation rates for 15 years, tries to keep the human side of his work in mind. The most important thing to remember, he says, is behind every statistic is a real student: a young man or woman who might not realize how leaving high school will have dire real-life impacts.
Chapman saw in his own family how leaving high school without a diploma can lead to a lifetime of struggle. His younger brother dropped out of school in 9th grade.
After working for many years as a dishwasher and living in an unheated garage, Chapman says, his brother finally completed his GED certificate in his 30's.
The first step to reducing the dropout rate might be to finally count those teenagers who researchers call 'America's forgotten children.' Because often, what you don;t count, you don't see on paper. And if it's not on paper, it's as if the problem doesn't even exist.
This story was produced with help from Ginger Moored and assistance from Natalie Yuravlivker. It is part of WAMU 88.5's American Graduate series. "American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen" is a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.