Monday, January 29, 2007

Just What Does The Anchorage School District Really Mean By "Graduation Rate"?

With the threat of a teacher strike in Anchorage looming, people in the community are focusing closer attention on a host of education-related issues such as teachers' salaries, working conditions, the outstanding liabilities of the PERS/TRS retirement system, and the effectiveness of school programs. One of the classical benchmarks of public school effectiveness has come under more intense scrutiny - the Anchorage School District's graduation rate. However, misleading or inaccurate information, coupled with occasional expressions of public demagoguery, particularly by ratings-hungry talk-show hosts, has had some demoralizing effect on the community in general, and the students and staff of ASD in particular, many of who are making good progress.

As a symbol of the Anchorage School District's transparency, and out of a desire to clarify the issue, ASD Superintendent Carol Comeau (pictured above left, courtesy of Anchorage Daily News) authored a Compass column published in the Anchorage Daily News on January 22nd, 2007. Compass columns are much more expanded letters to the editor, allowing a higher word count and permitting the author to develop a topic more fully. Any member of the community can submit one - the famous, the infamous, and the not-so-famous.

In her column, Comeau defines the graduation rate, defines the dropout rate, and addresses the inconsistency between the two benchmarks. In particular, she explains why a 64% graduation does NOT translate to a 36% dropout rate. I summarize her input below, combining it with some personal analysis.

First, the graduation rate is calculated over a four-year period, monitoring the number of students who enter ninth grade and graduate four years later. However, many students need more than four years to complete courses due to excessive absences, family issues and academic challenges. Students who graduate in the fifth year are just as important as other graduates, but they don't count toward the official four-year graduation rate.

In fact, ASD's four-year graduation rate grew by 4.3 percentage points from the previous year to 63.9 percent in the 2005-6 school year. That surpasses the statewide graduation rate of 59.64 percent. Comeau readily acknowledeges room for further improvement. However, the published graduation rate is for the entire district, including the alternative schools for students much more challenging to educate. The alternative schools racked up some dismal rates, which brought ASD's overall rate down. The graduation rate just for the eight standard high schools alone, which encompassed the bulk of the district's high school students, was approximately 75%. So this indicates that parents who have a child not requiring alternative education can expect their child to have a good chance to graduate from an ASD high school.

The dropout rate is different. It measures the percentage of students who enroll and then leave the district before the end of each school year. The number is subject to change at any time as students come and go and as ASD learns whether they truly dropped out of school or merely transferred to another district.

This means the relationship between the graduation rate and the dropout rate is NOT symbiotic. A rise in the graduation rate may have NO bearing on the dropout rate, and vice versa. Attempting a direct comparison between the two is like comparing apples and oranges; they're related, but not necessarily interrelated.

Comeau further expounds on the dropout rate. For example, in October 2006, the Anchorage School District reported a dropout rate of 6.28 percent (to clarify, this is the dropout rate for the entire 2005-6 school year). Since that time, the state has found almost 400 of the 1,600 students we classified as dropouts; they had enrolled in other districts, bringing the dropout rate down to 5.3% for 2005-2006, about 1,200 students out of 49,000 overall.

By far the biggest reasons given for most dropouts are "unknown" and "stopped attending." ASD began the second semester January 8th and have already started contacting students who didn't show up that Monday. As long they maintain contact with a student, they find a way for them to earn a diploma. The District's standard is to educate all students for success in life, and two of the most significant benchmarks of mission accomplishment are dropout and graduation rates, as the Superintendent acknowledges it should be.

The Anchorage School District knows that choosing to drop out of school before earning a diploma is a disastrous decision, and they support all reasonable measure to further discourage dropouts. That's why they support a legislative proposal to change the age for compulsory education from 16 years of age to 18, or acquiring a diploma.

ASD has also developed a menu of specific programs that focus on keeping students in school and on track. The choices include online learning, self-paced courses, nontraditional schedules, summer school and work-study programs to keep students focused on graduation in the wake of more rigorous standards prescribed by No Child Left Behind. In deference to the greater social instability triggered by cultural and ethnic deconstruction, ASD now provides programs for pregnant and parenting teens, working teens, bilingual students, homeless students and even those incarcerated or expelled from our regular school programs.

The Superintendent continues to welcome constructive criticism and comments. The school district welcomes comments and criticism, but accurate information must form the basis for debate. Visit their website, http://www.asdk12.org/, and click on their Profiles of Performances, or go to the state's Education Department site for updated numbers.

The Numbers: Below are posted the graduation and dropout rates for Anchorage high schools from the 2005-6 school year, extracted from each school's Profile of Performance. Clicking on the school's name will take you to that school's Profile of Performance. Note: The Anchorage School District classifies as "Economically Disadvantaged" any student meeting one or more of the following criteria:

1). Free/Reduced Price Lunch Program.
2). Alaska Temporary Assistance Program (ATAP)
3). Member of a Provision III School
4). Migrant Student
5). Sibling of any student in categories 1 through 4
6). Enrolled at Whaley (except ACE/ACT)
7). Enrolled at McLauglin or AVAIL

Standard High Schools

Bartlett High School:
- Graduation Rate: 68.3%
- Dropout Rate: 8.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 54.7%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 29.4%

Chugiak High School
- Graduation Rate: 83.5%
- Dropout Rate: 3.8%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 17.3%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 6.8%

Dimond High School
- Graduation Rate: 82.8%
- Dropout Rate: 4.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 37.4%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 13.1%

Eagle River High School
- Graduation Rate: 82.6%
- Dropout Rate: 3.1%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 27.1%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 8.4%

East High School
- Graduation Rate: 66.4%
- Dropout Rate: 5.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 65.0%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 37.4%

Service High School
- Graduation Rate: 74.8%
- Dropout Rate: 6.7%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 39.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 15.3%

South High School
- Graduation Rate: 87.3%
- Dropout Rate: 6.4%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 16.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 5.6%

West High School
- Graduation Rate: 58.6%
- Dropout Rate: 8.6%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 52.45%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 28.4%

Alternative High Schools

Alaska State School for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing (ASSDHH)
- Graduation Rate: 16.7%
- Dropout Rate: 3.8%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 41.1%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 44.6%

AVAIL
- Graduation Rate: 13.3%
- Dropout Rate: 38.2%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 77.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 100%

Benson
- Graduation Rate: 44.5%
- Dropout Rate: 22.8%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 56.3%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 38.1%

Continuation School: For students who have been expelled or are on long-term suspension
- Graduation Rate: Not Computed
- Dropout Rate: 16.7%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 80%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 46.7%

Crossroads
- Graduation Rate: 36.4%
- Dropout Rate: 31.8%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 73.8%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 45.9%

McLaughlin
- Graduation Rate: 9.3%
- Dropout Rate: 43.3%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 76.4%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 100%

SAVE
- Graduation Rate: 23.6%
- Dropout Rate: 26.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 47.6%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 21.8%

Whaley
- Graduation Rate: 9.3%
- Dropout Rate: 12.2%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 52.9%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 32.1%

Charter Schools

Family Partnership: Home-based K-12 program
- Graduation Rate: 40.8%
- Dropout Rate: 8.0%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 30.4%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 15.6%

Frontier Charter: Charter homeschool
- Graduation Rate: 47.6%
- Dropout Rate: 11.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 23.2%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 13.6%

Highland Tech: A rigorous technically-oriented academic program
- Graduation Rate: 43.2%
- Dropout Rate: 13.6%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 38.6%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 23.2%

Polaris
- Graduation Rate: 92.6%
- Dropout Rate: 4.8%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 20.1%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 10.4%

Steller
- Graduation Rate: 90.2%
- Dropout Rate: 0.4%
- Percentage of Total Students Non-White: 23.5%
- Percentage of Total Students Economically Disadvantaged: 6.6%

Findings: To the surprise of virtually no one, there's a strong triangular correlation between graduation rate, percentage of non-white students, and percentage of economically disadvantaged students. South High School, with the highest graduation rate, also had the lowest percentage of non-white students and the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students. It serves the Hillside area of Anchorage, the wealthiest part of the community.

On the other end of the scale, East High School, with the second lowest graduation rate, also had the highest percentage of non-white students and the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Combined, the three standard high schools with the lowest graduation rates (East, West, and Bartlett) also had the highest percentage of non-white and economically disadvantaged students. They serve the most multi-racial and most economically disadvantaged parts of the community. In Bartlett's case, I believe their numbers would be worse if there weren't a large number of military dependents in the student population.

Correlation between dropout rate, race, and income was much weaker. The four high schools with the lowest dropout rates also had the lowest percentage of non-white and economically disadvantaged students. But the order of ranking for the four schools varied. While South High School had the lowest percentage of non-whites and economically disadvantage students, it was fourth lowest in dropout rate. The correlation between graduation rate and dropout rate was also weak.

There were some interesting categorical findings regarding performance by race. Multi-ethnic students had the highest dropout rates in five of the eight standard high schools (they did have the lowest dropout rate at Dimond, though). This implies that, despite increasing societal tolerance of interracial marriage and mass media promotion of the practice, interracial relationships can still pose difficult challenges and the offspring experience considerable stress trying to fit in. Too bad we no longer inform the kids of this problem so they could take it into consideration when choosing prospective spouses.

However, one of the most astounding findings was the fact that black students had the lowest dropout rate at three of the high schools (Eagle River, East, and South). Closer demographic analysis provides some understanding. At Eagle River, which is indigenously white, most black students are military dependents from two-parent families in disciplined environments at Elmendorf AFB and Fort Richardson. This is proof that kids need both a father AND a mother for an optimal upbringing. The fact that it takes both a man AND a woman to create a child STRONGLY IMPLIES that it ALSO requires both a man and a woman, living together in matrimony, to raise that child most successfully. "Love" doesn't make a family - a man and a woman living together in matrimony make a family. And carefully note that I stated "one man and one women" - not "two women", and most definitely not "two men".

Black students attending South High School come from wealthier, and usually more stable families, thus explaining their low droput rate there.

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