NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

In Search of a Meaningful "Dropout Rate"

December 18, 2001

With the current emphasis on public school quality, test scores, attendance figures, teacher performance measurements and dropout rates have assumed huge importance. But dropout rates, in particular, are hard to compare -- because there are so many definitions and few can agree on how and what to measure.

Agreeing on a standard definition is particularly important because Congress is about to pass an education bill that requires all states to look at graduation rates to determine whether their schools meet new progress goals. Schools with chronically low test scores and graduation rates face sanctions that range up to takeovers by private managers.

For their part, 23 states already use graduation or dropout rates to help decide which schools share in reward money or face overhaul.

But there is wide disagreement on how to calculate the proportion of dropouts a state, district or school has.

  • The U.S. Department of Education -- which will spend about $22.5 billion on K-12 schools next year -- doesn't compel states to report their dropout rates at all -- and still won't despite the new bill.
  • When the department calculated dropout rates most recently, only 37 states reported their numbers, and only 27 of those used the standards and definitions the department asked them to use.
  • When Standard & Poor's started a project this year to bring some marketplace rigor to school records, only Michigan and Pennsylvania signed up to cooperate -- but even they can't agree on a definition of a dropout, with Michigan's definition being anyone "who cannot be accounted for."

Further complicating the issue, some states have multiple dropout numbers. Texas has four numbers it uses for different policy purposes, and Maryland has two. Even the federal Department of Education has two measurements.

Source: June Kronholz, "Various Ways of Calculating Dropout Rate Leaves Subject Open to Much Interpretation," Wall Street Journal, December 18, 2001.

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