State dropout rate at 33 percent
Seattle Times staff reporter
Only two-thirds of students who enter Washington high schools graduate four years later, according to a new study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The graduation rates for African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are lower — around 50 percent, said the study, written by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative New York think tank.
New figures from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, also released yesterday, report a higher statewide graduation rate — 72 percent rather than the Manhattan Institute's 67 percent.
But both calculations give better estimates of a problem that's been underreported for years: Large numbers of Washington students drop out or leave school without receiving a diploma.
It's a problem that's been receiving more attention as state and federal officials look for more ways to tell whether schools are doing their jobs. They want to make sure that the effort to raise student achievement doesn't cause the dropout rate to grow — or that schools don't artificially raise their test scores by pushing marginal students out the door.
"As we increase the academic rigor, it's important that we monitor the dropout rate to make sure that doesn't increase. We see that happening in other states like North Carolina," Tom Vander Ark, the foundation's executive director for education, said yesterday. "As we increase the rigor, we have to improve the academic support and the personal attention that students get at schools."
The Manhattan Institute study builds on an earlier report in which it computed graduation rates in all 50 states for the class of 1998. The national average then was 71 percent; Washington state's rate was 70 percent.
The Gates Foundation asked the institute to delve further into Washington's statistics and compute rates for 15 selected school districts, including Seattle, Lake Washington, Everett, Tacoma and Enumclaw in the Puget Sound area.
The other districts are Bellingham, Evergreen, Kennewick, Mabton, Nooksack, Pasco, Port Angeles, Richland, Spokane and Vancouver.
Most of the districts have received grants from the foundation.
The dropout rate is a major problem that has gotten lost among the other education issues, Vander Ark said. "It's a critical life indicator," he said. "It's a big social and economic crisis in America and one that we do not talk about."
The foundation says the results underscore the importance of creating small high schools of no more than 400 students — or small schools within schools. That's the main focus of the foundation's education giving.
It points to the success of a number of small high schools in New York and Chicago that have much higher graduation rates than their larger counterparts, although it's possible that factors other than size could be at work.
"It's a tragedy that so many of our young people, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, are getting lost in large, anonymous high schools and falling through the cracks," Vander Ark said.
To calculate its graduation rates, the Institute compared the number of ninth-graders in the 1997-98 school year with the number of graduates four years later, with some adjustments for transfers and other population changes.
• Asians had the highest statewide graduation rate at 77 percent for the class of 2001, followed by whites with 70 percent. African Americans were at 53 percent, Latinos and Native Americans each at 47 percent.
• Among the 15 districts, Lake Washington and Bellingham had the highest overall graduation rate at 82 percent. Seattle was at 71 percent. Everett and Tacoma were among the lowest at 51 percent. Pasco had the lowest rate — 46 percent.
• Tacoma had the lowest graduation rate for Asian Americans and Native Americans, while Everett had the lowest among whites and Latinos. Bellingham had the lowest rate for African Americans.
"Where we are losing most of these kids is in ninth grade," Tacoma schools Superintendent Jim Shoemake said.
Those who don't graduate are considered dropouts.
The study's author, Jay Greene, cautioned that the smaller the district or group of students, the less reliable the results. All the study's results should be treated with caution, he said, except those from Spokane, Seattle and the state as a whole.
"The idea of this estimate ... is to raise questions about where results are worrisome," he said.
Seattle schools Superintendent Joseph Olchefske said the report shows that districts have a long way to go to ensure all students get the preparation they need to get good jobs. The district's 2002 data show the dropout rate among African Americans is going down, he added.
Greene wrote that high-school graduates earn nearly twice as much as dropouts who work. And students who fail to graduate from high school are significantly more likely to become single parents, and/or rely upon public assistance.
Greene criticized the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) for overstating the graduation rate, but OSPI staffers say that's not true.
The agency earlier reported a 2001 statewide dropout rate of 18 percent. But while Greene wrote that implied a graduation rate of 82 percent, OSPI says that ignores the fact that it also reports a separate category of students whose status is "unknown" — students who leave school without saying whether they're transferring or dropping out, said Pete Bylsma, OSPI director of research and evaluation.
Many of those students could be dropouts, but Bylsma said no one really knows. So the state OSPI reports them in a separate category, and lets others judge how to classify them.
OSPI also includes students who receive GEDs as graduates, and those who earn their diplomas in five or six years instead of four. The Manhattan Institute's analysis counts neither as graduates.
"They basically say if you're not a graduate in four years, you're a dropout — and that's not fair," Bylsma said.
Still, Bylsma says the Manhattan Institute's analysis, while it has some weaknesses, is basically sound and highlights the same problem OSPI sees.
And OSPI, which hasn't provided good dropout and graduation data in the past, is starting to remedy that.
In the past, it reported only one-year dropout rates — the number of high-school seniors who dropped out in their final year. That was what the federal government required, but isn't what most people think of as a dropout rate.
The agency plans to release full results of its own monthslong study later this week. It will include graduation and four-year dropout rates for each district, and each high school in the state.
"We're hoping the report will get people to sit up and take notice," Bylsma said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Tan Vinh contributed to this story.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web
A copy of the Manhattan Institute report, "High School Graduation Rates in Washington State" is available on the institute's Web site, www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_27.htm.