Friday, March 18, 2005


Now, here’s a fine how do you do: Go Big Ed reported this week that high-school graduation rates for Nebraska’s African-American students and Latino students were 53% and 50%, respectively. That’s according to a national report on graduation rates by a Ph.D. researcher on

But 450 Nebraska educators were told Wednesday at the Annual Hispanic Education Summit co-sponsored by the State Education Department in Lincoln that the Latino dropout rate is actually 12.2 percent (Thursday’s World-Herald, p. 3B).

Since that’s only one-fourth as high as Go Big Ed reported, eyebrows were raised in skepticism in the palatial offices of Go Big Ed in the foothills of Mount Laundry, Neb.

So I went back to my source, and found out through a Wall Street Journal article posted with the national study that there are lots of ways to come up with a “dropout rate,” and educators always, always take the way that makes them look as dandy-fine as possible.

They’re cooking the books on all four burners with a turbocharge, in other words.

The claim that the Latino dropout rate is 12.2 percent is apparently an annual figure, not a cumulative one, then. It was from a report by Omaha sociologists Lourdes Gouveia and Mary Ann Powell. Nebraska Education Commissioner Doug Christensen attended the meeting, and there was no record that he corrected the outrageous 400% understatement. I mean, if you dropped out in ninth grade, you still dropped out when your classmates are graduating. But Nebraska doesn’t count you that way. It sweeps you under the rug.

Neither did he correct another understatement from the report, that the dropout rate for whites in Nebraska is 2.9 percent. According to the national study, it’s 10 percent.

How can this be? Well, lots of ways: according to the Dec. 18, 2001, Wall Street Journal article, educators almost never report the cumulative dropout rate. They just report how many kids dropped out that year. Since kids start dropping out as early as seventh grade, the lack of a cumulative, chronological figure is highly deceptive.

Also, educators always want to include kids who dropped out of school but eventually received their General Equivalency Diploma, or GED, in the “graduation rate.” However, that’s not fair, since what we’re measuring is how successful school systems were in accomplishing their basic mission, K-12.

If the student never got a diploma from that school, he or she shouldn’t be included in the graduation count. GED students have just about the same career and personal problems as dropouts, anyway.

The national study, by Dr. Jay P. Greene, was careful to exclude GEDs, and went back to 1993 figures to collect eighth-grade head counts reported by schools to the U.S. Department of Education. Then he compared those figures with diplomas awarded in 1998 to come up with his data.

Significantly, U.S. Department of Education officials do not dispute Greene’s data. So the 50% figure for Nebraska is much closer to the bruising reality for Hispanic citizens than the number bandied about by state officials.

Now, it is true that schools do not have good recordkeeping systems and often do not know whether a particular student has moved or has actually dropped out. With the extra mobile Hispanic population, that could indeed be a factor. But Greene’s methodology was sophisticated and deemed accurate. If he can find out, there’s no reason professional sociologists and high-paid state officials can’t.

In the Wall Street Journal article, Greene was quoted as saying that schools commonly “cook” their statistics to make themselves look good. For instance, there was a ballot issue pending in Michigan that would have allowed school-choice vouchers in any district that failed to graduate at least two-thirds of its students.

Miraculously, the graduation rate in Detroit went up from 30% to 68% in one year.

Now, THAT’S a fine how do you do!

Why should we care if Nebraska officials are operating under false data and giving the public false perceptions about the real problem with certain student groups?

Here’s why: according to the Journal article, high-school dropouts earned only about half as much as high-school graduates in 1999, and were much more likely to go on welfare, land in prison, or become single parents.

If that’s not “fine” with you, then give your state and local education officials a “how do you do,” and demand accuracy in public information so that we all can make wiser decisions on policy issues that mean so much to people’s lives and the future of our state.

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