New Math May Lower Graduation Numbers

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

The official 2006 graduation rate for Montgomery County public schools is 92 percent. But that number and the formula by which it was calculated are falling out of use in public education.

For years, public educators in Maryland, Virginia and the District have measured graduation rates based on the number of students known to have dropped out, and many dropouts are never counted. Education leaders long defended the method, but increasingly they are agreeing with researchers that it yields inflated graduation rates.

Now, educators are taking a closer look at attrition, the winnowing-down of a high school population over time, as the basis for a new and more accurate -- and less flattering -- way of calculating the graduation rate.

All 50 governors have agreed to a new method for calculating the graduation rate. Their proposal, which will be adopted in Virginia by 2008, in the District by 2010 and in Maryland by 2011, is fairly simple: Divide the number of freshman in one year by the number of graduates four years later, adjusting for students who transfer in or out or repeat grades.

Applying the new math depends on an accurate count of transfers and students who repeat grades. State education officials say they are working on that and intend to go even further by applying a unique identifier to each student.

To illustrate the extent of student attrition at different county high schools, The Washington Post analyzed attrition data for the class of 2006 using a method similar to the formula embraced by the governors.

The analysis of head counts from 23 schools, provided by the state education department, found that the class shrank from 11,589 students to 9,743 between freshman year and graduation day. That suggests a graduation rate of about 84 percent, eight points lower than the 92 percent reported by the Maryland State Department of Education.

The Post estimated graduation rates by comparing the number of freshmen enrolled in fall 2002 with the number of diplomas awarded in spring 2006, the latest count available.

The result is only an estimate -- it doesn't account for the comings and goings of students, those who repeat grades or the growth and decline in school populations over time. But it may give a more accurate picture of student attrition than the state can provide at present. Parents seeking out such data from the state education department at will find the old rates, based on dropouts.

In contrast, the graduation formula adopted by the National Governors Association should yield a more accurate count.

The Post's findings are similar to those of a report released last month by Editorial Projects in Education, publisher of Education Week. That study, embraced by the Bush administration, estimated attrition rates for school districts nationwide and painted a bleak picture: Just over two-thirds of students graduate.

The Education Week formula is yet another way of calculating attrition, more complicated than the governors' formula but arguably less accurate, because it cannot account for students who transfer in and out of schools or those who repeat grades.

The Education Week report placed the Montgomery school system in the top rank of large school districts for its graduation rate. It ranked Montgomery sixth among the 50 largest school districts, with 80.3 percent of students graduating in 2004, the most recent data available for every school district from the federal government. The national graduation rate was estimated at 69.9 percent.

School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, in an interview last week, said the Education Week research "was a good place to start," but he said educators should focus beyond the graduation rate to assess the quality of what is taught.

"Once you've got them in and hold them in, you've got to take a look at the rigor that you're teaching them," Weast said.

The report did not discuss individual schools.

In The Post's analysis, graduation rates ranged from a high of 97 percent at Wootton and Churchill high schools, two of the most affluent in the county in terms of family income, to a low of 62 percent at Wheaton High, the least affluent.

The analysis of student attrition shows that even schools with relatively high levels of student poverty are graduating at least four students in five. Quince Orchard High in Gaithersburg, for example, posted a graduation rate of 84 percent, right at the county average. Sixteen percent of students qualify for subsidized meals.

"I don't think kids got lost in the shuffle, said Elly Shaw-Belblidia, the mother of a rising senior at Quince Orchard.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company