Thursday, November 01, 2007

Fairbanks (Alaska) North Star Borough School District Disputes Designation Of Three High Schools As "Dropout Factories"

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is disputing the results of the highly publicized study performed by John Hopkins University and commissioned by the Associated Press which characterized three of its high schools as "dropout factories". Full story published October 31st, 2007 in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This issue previously presented HERE.

Ben Eielson Jr/Sr High School, North Pole High School, and Lathrop High School were the schools so designated, since they were found to have retention rates of 60 percent or less. Specifically, Eielson had a retention rate of 58 percent, North Pole at 51 percent, and Lathrop at 47 percent.

The John Hopkins/AP study is viewable as an AP graphic. Click HERE to view AP graphic, then click on the state of interest.

However, according to the formula used by the State of Alaska, Eielson's graduation rate was 81 percent, North Pole was at 66 percent, and Lathrop at 63 percent. All figures used here are for the 2006-07 school year.

The Johns Hopkins researchers did not rely on dropout data the school districts have to provide to the federal government. Instead, they compared the number of freshmen a school has, for instance in 2001, with the number of seniors the school had four years later. If the school had fewer seniors in 2004 than freshman in 2001 all those missing students were assumed by the researchers to be “dropouts.”

It’s not a real solid way in my opinion to calculate dropout rates,” Fairbanks Superintendent Nancy Wagner said.

By comparison, when the state calculates dropout rates under the direction of the federal government, individual students are tracked each year. By working closely with the local school districts, the state is able to determine if a student transferred to a school in California or Anchorage, or if indeed the student dropped out of school and is no longer on track to earn a diploma.

And state officials joined in the criticism as well. “It doesn’t seem fair to pick these schools as poster boys for some highly inflammatory study,” said Eric Fry, a spokesman for the Alaska State Department of Education.

Those students could have moved to another state or even to another school across town. In Fairbanks, for example, Hutchison High School opened in the middle of the three-year study. Any students who transferred to and later graduated from Hutchison would have counted as a dropout by Johns Hopkins in the schools they left. On Eielson Air Force Base, any student who started high school at Ben Eielson but later moved when their parents were stationed elsewhere would be counted against the school.

On a military base every year when your freshman class comes in you can safely assume that many of those kids aren’t going to be there four years later,” Fry said, noting that if a base is closed or realigned the number of students leaving would be even larger.

However, Superintendent Nancy Wagner is not using the discrepancy to excuse her schools' performance or to rest on her laurels. She freely admits that the numbers calculated by the state still aren’t as high as she would like. “We do know that our graduation rate overall is not where it should be,” Wagner said.

For the past two years, the school district has had dropout prevention specialists assigned to each high school to target students struggling in school or in danger of dropping out. “Having that person who cares about you and checks up on you makes a difference,” Wagner said.

The district also has a program in place where students can work to make up credits they may have lost by failing classes early in their high school career. But while the graduation rate is definitely a concern in Fairbanks, Wagner said, it’s not as bleak of a situation as the Johns Hopkins study would have people believe.

So what about the other four Alaska high schools labeled "dropout factories"? Here's a comparison of the AP study "retention rates" vs. state graduation rates (click HERE to get to the page, then select the school district of interest, which lists the numbers for each school in the district)

Barrow High School: 40% retention, 70% state graduation rate
Bethel Regional High School: 52% retention, 58% state graduation rate
Dillingham Jr/Sr High School: 60% retention, 51% state graduation rate
Wasilla High School: 58% retention, 82% state graduation rate.

In three cases, the study's retention rate was far worse than the school's actual state-calculated graduation rate. Only in Dillingham's case was it reversed. One has to wonder how many other school districts around the country found the same anomaly.

And indeed, additional media reports of disagreement are surfacing. For example:

- Mason City (IA) School Superintendent Keith Sargland called the study "hogwash".

- Pinckney (MI) High School Principal Jim Darga "begs to differ".

- Bay County (FL) school officials characterize the inclusion of Rutherford High School as "flawed". Rutherford has a large military student population from nearby Tyndall AFB.

And this is just a small sampling of the dozens of media stories of disagreement one can find by executing a Google news search of the phrase "dropout factories".

Johns Hopkins explains their methodology HERE. They state that the main reason their retention rate (or "promoting power" as they call it) might be lower than the official graduation rate would be excessive out-migration. However, they didn't believe enough schools had sufficient out-migration to make the Johns Hopkins numbers unrepresentative.

They also state that the main reason their retention rate might be higher than the official graduation rate is if too many students take more than four years to graduate. This might explain the situation at Dillingham High School.

If this study focuses renewed and necessary attention on high school dropouts, it might be worth the imperfections. In today's knowledge-based economy, lack of a high school diploma can sentence one to a lifetime of penury...or worse.

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