Inside the Capitol

Sunday, October 04, 2009

10-7 What Graduation Rates Tell Us

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- What was that big flap over dropout rates? First we were presented with a state Public Education Department report showing that New Mexico has a dismal 54 percent graduation rate.
Not long after, we received a revised report moving the figure up to 60 percent, still far short of the national average of 69 percent. That was accompanied by complaints from school districts that the state had totally messed up its original report and shouldn't have published such inaccurate information.
But here's the story as I understand it. The graduation rate statistics we're talking about are for the school term that ended a year ago last spring. School districts had a year to submit their data by August 3, 2009 to meet federal and state requirements.
The state compiled those figures and released them, explaining that they were preliminary but indicating that late changes could revise those figures only slightly. For many schools those changes were slight but for a few schools, they were huge.
Public Education Secretary Veronica Garcia says her department received 15,834 changes after the deadline. Almost all those changes sent graduation rates up. Albuquerque Public Schools went up 17 percentage points.
In fairness to school districts, however, it must be pointed out that graduation rates aren't as easy to compute as one might imagine. If no student ever moved or changed schools, tracking ninth graders through their senior year would be simple.
But in our mobile society, that doesn't happen. Small school districts usually have the most stability -- and the highest graduation rates, even in communities one might not expect.
In larger districts, however, students move around. Families relocate out of town, out of state or out of the country. There also are more choices of schools within those communities to which students often transfer.
Tracking those students through their transfers to be sure they haven't dropped out is difficult. In a school with 500 freshmen, it may take a year to track them all down. To demonstrate the problem, a recent editorial cartoon showed freshmen being fitted with electronic monitoring collars.
Albuquerque school Superintendent Winston Brooks has noted one group of "dropouts" that the state evidently doesn't measure. These are the 22 percent of his seniors who didn't graduate in four years but who are still in school.
He notes that if those students were eliminated from the dropout rate calculation, Albuquerque would have a rate higher than the national average.
Regardless of what the most accurate figures might be, the fact remains that New Mexico has a dropout problem. Gov. Bill Richardson has tried to attack it since his first year on the job.
Richardson's initial focus was the need for parents to encourage their children to stay in school and to work hard at graduating. I agree that parents are the key.
It is likely that all of you reading this column made a strong effort to encourage your family members through school. But I am told there are people who don't read this column. They are the problem. And it seems that nearly all attempts to reach them have failed.
In our society, personal responsibility has given way to entitlement attitudes. Those attitudes have become so ingrained and so many other priorities compete with education that far too many students don't value an education.
I have previously mentioned the efforts of some developing countries to build their climb to the top around education. It requires a more authoritarian approach than Americans are willing to accept.
But we should take a look at the efforts in China, India and Singapore to see if there are features we can borrow. Forty years ago, Singapore was so poor and illiterate its neighbors rejected overtures to join with them.
The tiny country decided the only way out was to adopt a national obsession with education. It's now one of the richest countries on earth.
WED, 10-07-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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