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Editorial: Let’s focus on the schools’ real graduation rates

By   /   August 10, 2010  /   News  /   No Comments

Published: Tuesday, August 10, 2010, 5:20 AM

Press Register Editorial Board

IF MOBILE County high schools have a graduation rate of 88 percent and Baldwin high schools have a graduation rate of 96 percent, then the schools are performing close to or better than the state’s goal of 90 percent under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

So we can all sit back and congratulate ourselves on a job well done, right?

Not exactly.

The same education officials who released last week’s commendable graduation numbers say the real story is not nearly so rosy.

The state’s overall graduation rate isn’t really 87 percent, as the recent report showed, but is closer to 65 percent when it’s calculated using a new, more accepted formula. The county figures are probably way off, too, officials conceded.

Well, by all means, let’s have the truth. It might not be flattering, but at least we’ll be able to quantify the dropout problem.

The new formula, to be used routinely starting in 2012, is a better representation of reality because it tracks students from the freshman year, when studies say they are most likely to drop out. The formula follows them to see whether they graduate and whether they graduate on time.

The cost of failing to graduate is high — for both the student and the community. In 2006, 93 percent of Alabama children who had a parent with less than a high school diploma lived in low-income households, according to the Southern Education Foundation. In 2008, the same foundation identified high school dropouts as Alabama’s No. 1 education and economic problem.

To its credit, Mobile County began three programs last year to help more students finish high school. It hired graduation coaches to work with 40 troubled students at six schools, started a night school for at-risk students and partnered with a company to start Drop Back In Academies for those who have left the system. Some Mobile and Baldwin schools also have established Freshmen Academy programs to target ninth-graders.

Legislators have raised the minimum dropout age from 16 to 17, and require students and their parents to have an exit interview with administrators.

The Mobile Education Foundation also deserves credit for studying the problem and proposing remedies. Among them: focusing on high-quality pre-kindergarten, tracking students who show problems before high school and offering alternatives to the traditional high school model.

Such programs will take time to make a difference. In the meanwhile, let’s use the more accurate graduation statistics — the ones that, while they embarrass us, also tell us how big the problem really is.