The following op-ed was written by Ray Simon, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and appeared in today’s Investor’s Business Daily:
How can a nation that invented the light bulb, created vaccines to eradicate polio, put a man on the moon and conceived the Internet not have a good handle on how many of its students drop out of high school?
Hard to believe, but we've never kept track of how many students graduate from high school on time on a national level. Instead of having what would seem to be a common, uniform formula for everyone to use, every state has made its own calculations, resulting in a hodgepodge of incomparable data. In other words, there are currently almost as many ways of calculating this rate as there are states.
As a result, policymakers, educators, parents and businesses have never been able to grasp the depth of our high school dropout problem. And any attempt to reform our nation's high schools - recently called "obsolete institutions" by Bill Gates - must start with an honest appraisal of this issue.
Unfortunately, educational statistics have been hard to collect and analyze. But thanks to the dual emphasis on information and results in the No Child Left Behind Act, states have been given federal funds to build up their data collection infrastructure so they can track and help struggling students before they fall through the cracks.
What's at stake? By some estimates, four years after starting high school, approximately 1 million students out of 3.5 million have not yet finished high school, and we don't really have good data on how many of these students will ever earn a high school diploma.
Most experts agree that without a diploma, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to fully participate in today's knowledge-driven, globally competitive economy. Dropouts on average earn 30 percent less than high school graduates – if they can find a job at all (they are 15 percent less likely to find gainful employment). Even starker: Dropouts are also more likely to end up on public assistance and in prison.
That's why, in addition to the concerns of Gates and other leaders, a broad-based consensus has built around the need for high school reform. Teachers, principals, the Bush administration and, recently, many of the nation's governors have issued the same clarion call.
Even students admit high school is not challenging or difficult: Almost two-thirds say they would work harder if courses were more demanding or interesting.
But that reform must start with an honest calculation of graduation rates. That's why the Department's Expert Task Force issued a final report last November recommending the development of systems in every state to provide the data needed to compute accurate four-year graduation rates that take student migration into account.
As a follow-up, the department recently announced that we will calculate and publish each state's four-year graduation rate. We are considering this an interim measure that will allow honest comparisons until all states are able to produce accurate four-year rates. This interim measure will be published alongside the states' own calculations.
These efforts highlight the need for states to work together to come up with a common definition. The nation's governors and a number of education groups have reached the same conclusion, calling for the development of systems and agreeing on a common definition for the graduation rate. Forty-five states have signed on thus far.
The National Governors Association has also agreed that while states ramp up their own capacity for a long-term solution, the department's interim calculation, called the "averaged freshman graduation rate," can be used to give comparable state-level data. This rate will be based on the number of high school graduates in a given year divided by the average of the number of students who entered the 8th grade five years earlier, the 9th grade four years earlier and the 10th grade three years earlier.
While this rate doesn't capture all student movements, it has the advantage of using data now available. And we know from a forthcoming analysis that this rate tracks closest to a rate based on actual student data.
This reasonable solution ultimately helps students, of course. That's why we're doing it. Improving the accuracy of our graduation statistics allows us to better target resources and tailor instruction for children who might fall through the cracks and eventually drop out.
Knowing the true number of high school graduates also tells us how well our high schoolers are prepped for college or employment. It also lets companies make educated decisions about where to locate new facilities based on the quality of local schools.
In the computer and calculator kind of world in which we live, a slide rule doesn't cut it anymore.
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