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Understanding graduation and dropout rates

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The lead author of the most comprehensive study of the Philadelphia dropout situation, Ruth Curran Neild of Johns Hopkins University, answered questions from the Notebook about what’s been happening to the dropout rate in Philadelphia over time and how it is being measured and tracked.

Neild and Robert Balfanz wrote the 2006 report Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis, 2000- 2005. The study found that throughout that period, only about half of the students entering high school graduated within four years, and fewer than 60 percent graduated within six years.

Your report found that the District’s on-time graduation rate hovered around 50 percent from the class of 2001 to the class of 2005. Can you explain how you calculated that rate?

That’s called a cohort rate. Using school district records, we determined what percentage of students who started 9th grade together had graduated four years later. In other words, we followed Johnny and Susie over four years to see whether they graduated. Our rate takes into account students who transferred out of the district.

The most recent numbers we have are from Pennsylvania reporting the graduation rate on their No Child Left Behind report cards. For Philadelphia, the state says the percentage of students graduating has been in the low to mid 60’s for the last several years. Why is the state’s graduation figure higher than yours?

Currently, the Pennsylvania rate does not follow the progress of individual students, because so far they haven’t had that data capability. Since they are not able to follow a cohort – a group of students who began high school at the same time – they estimate the graduation rate through a formula that uses the overall number of dropouts and graduates over a four-year period. That rate is better than nothing, but it mixes together students who are really in different cohorts.

Can we expect any changes in how Pennsylvania tracks and determines the graduation rate?

The state will have much better data on the graduation rate beginning with the Class of 2010. In 2006-07, the state began to assign each student a unique identification number so that it can track their progress even if they switch school districts within the state.

The Data Quality Campaign, a group that tracks state progress in collecting education data, notes that Pennsylvania has all of the data components for a high-quality graduation and dropout tracking system (see www.dataqualitycampaign. org/survey_results).

Mayor Nutter has been talking about the dropout rate. How do we move from the graduation rate to a dropout rate?

It is always better to use a graduation rate because in a dynamic system with students enrolling and dropping out all the time, it is easier to determine who is a graduate than who is a dropout at any given point. As a rule of thumb, students who haven’t graduated within six years of starting high school will probably become dropouts. So if you have a 55 percent six-year graduation rate, you have about a 45 percent dropout rate.

Can you compare Philadelphia to other urban districts?

There are only a few other school districts in the country where education outcomes are as well-documented as Philadelphia’s. Knowing the dimensions of a problem can be the first step in finding a solution, so the importance of having this information shouldn’t be underestimated. In Chicago, the other well-documented city in the country, about 54 percent of the students graduate in four years. That figure is comparable to Philadelphia’s.

Are there any positive signs in the Philadelphia data?

In the Unfulfilled Promise report, we observed that the four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2005 was greater than 50 percent for the first time in the trend line that we developed. So we saw that as a sign of hope.

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