washingtonpost.com  > Education > Higher Education
The Numbers

Education Statistics Difficult to Interpret

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A12

In the past year, many newspapers published a disheartening set of graduation rate estimates compiled by the Denver-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit group that does policy work in higher education.

The following numbers were based on data the center gathered from several sources in the 50 states and the District.


Alcorn State biology professor M.S. Zaman reviews information from a botany class with Jennifer Harrell, left, LaShanda Rankin and Ebony Vidito. (J.d. Schwalm)

Where Graduation Is the Goal

How can a family tell which colleges care most about graduating students? Here are tips from the Education Trust:

Plug the words "National Survey of Student Engagement" or "NSSE" into a college's Web site search engine and see if the school has responded to the Indiana University-based study, which surveys student participation in useful learning activities.

When visiting a college, ask some NSSE-like questions, such as: How much of a chance is there for undergraduates to do original research? Do professors generally assign many short papers (good) or one, big, long one (bad)?

Ask your tour guide how often he speaks to professors outside class about what he is learning. Such conversations are good.

Ask your tour guide how often she and her friends were contacted by their campus advisers in the last semester. Florida State -- which has a good graduation rate for all students, including minorities -- requires at least three contacts a semester.

For every 100 students who enter ninth grade:

• 67 will graduate from high school.

• 38 will enter college.

• 26 will remain in college beyond freshman year.

• 18 will earn an associate's or bachelor's degree.

But researchers at the U.S. Department of Education responded with a different, and somewhat more optimistic, set of numbers based on a longitudinal study in which 12,000 students were followed from the time they were in eighth grade, in 1988, until December 2000.

For every 100 students in the eighth grade in 1988, their statistics showed:

• 78 graduated from high school on time in 1992 with a regular diploma.

• 53 entered a postsecondary institution within seven months of graduation.

• 47 remained in the postsecondary system beyond the first year.

• 34 earned an associate or bachelor's degree by age 26.

Grover Whitehurst, director of the Education Department's Institute for Educational Sciences, said he thought the Denver group's state data were "not a good basis for generating a valid national estimate."

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has complained about the lack of good information on college graduation and other issues. "We can tell you almost anything you want to know about first-time, full-time degree-seeking students who have never transferred," she said in a recent speech. "The trouble is, today, that's less than half of the total student population."

Education statisticians say they hope to develop electronic records for all students, as Texas and other states have been doing, so progress can more easily be followed.

"The accounting has to be complete, open and honest evidence," said Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst at the Education Department. "Otherwise, we will never be guided to where the system has been successful and where the blockages in the system truly lie -- in time, place and population."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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