There’s no more visible marker of a city’s educational vitality than its high school graduation rate.

And cities in America seemingly have a lot to brag about. This year, the U.S. graduation rate rose to an impressive 81 percent – an all-time high. We should feel good and patriotic.

Learning Curve-01

In June, NPR pulled together reporters in various states to find the truth behind the graduation rates. It turns out, the numbers aren’t always as straightforward as they appear.

In Chicago, for example, reporters found that schools were misclassifying students who left, thereby inflating the grad rates. A day after the story came out, Chicago Public Schools promised to close the loopholes.

But Chicago wasn’t the only place playing games with numbers. In Texas, the state with the highest graduation rates, thousands of students leave school without being classified as dropouts. There are other questions, too, like just how rigorous credit-recovery programs are – non-traditional avenues school districts take to get students out the door on time.

Let’s turn our attention to San Diego Unified. It’s very proud of its grad rate, and conversely, its dropout rate. For the 2013-2014, the most recent data available, the district boasted a nearly 90 percent grad rate, the second highest among the state’s large urban districts. Its dropout rate of 4.5 percent was lowest in that same group.

That number sounds good, but we know it doesn’t quite get to how much value the diploma holds when it comes to life after high school. That same year, fewer than half of all seniors met the requirements to get into UC and CSU schools.

That’s a bigger question, though. And first things first, let’s zero in on the statistics.

Question: How is the dropout rate actually calculated? – Jim Wilson, interested reader (I’ve paraphrased Jim’s question.)

For this, I turned to Ron Rode, San Diego’s director of research and development. He’s good with the datas.

First, it’s important to understand when we’re talking about grad and dropout rates, we’re talking about adjusted cohort rates. A cohort is basically a group of students that enters a grade at the same time – a freshman class, for example.

But not all students who start ninth grade together finish 12th grade together. Some drop out, some transfer to schools in other districts or states, some die. You get the point. So the numbers are adjusted to account for the students who transfer in and out.

There are also a number of students who take more than four years to graduate, complete a GED or receive a Special Education Certificate.

So, that’s how we come to our adjusted cohort graduation rate for 2013-2014: 89.6. The dropout rate was 4.5.

Importantly, only actual graduates and dropouts are considered in the rates. Students who take a nontraditional route – those who complete a GED, take more than four years to graduate or receive a special ed certificate – are not included in the overall grad rate. But they’re not considered dropouts either.

Did I lose you there? Here’s an example from Rode:

Say we have 1,000 students in the cohort and 30 earned GEDs, 30 received certificates and 30 re-enrolled for a fifth year. Another 60 were coded as dropouts. In this case our two rates are:

Dropout:  60 out of 1000 is 6 percent.

Graduation: 30 + 30 + 30 + 60 = 150 did not graduate; therefore, 850 did and the graduation rate is 850 out of 1,000, or 85 percent.

Other states, like Illinois, consider those who leave for a GED to have dropped out. California does not.

Setting aside whether it’s appropriate to do that, the number of students completing GEDs in San Diego Unified schools appears to be very small – it’s not listed on DataQuest, which indicates a tiny number. So that wouldn’t change the dropout rate significantly even if it was included.

For me, the more important question has to do to with the safeguards in place to make sure schools are appropriately coding students who leave. How do we know San Diego Unified isn’t cooking the books, similar to what Chicago Public Schools was doing?

Rode said this starts with training staffers who enter exit codes. There are two levels of data entry on this, so a central office staff member verifies the numbers that a lower-level staffer entered. Also, people entering the codes have to enter their names, so you’d know who screwed up, if it happens.

Rode also pointed me to CALPADS, the state system for tracking students longitudinally. So, while it might be tough for school districts to track students who leave for another district, this statewide system follows them by student ID number, and sees when they’ve enrolled elsewhere.

If students say they’re going to another district, but never attend, they’re recorded as a dropout and still fall on San Diego Unified’s books.

The trickiest part, though, is tracking students who move out of state, or leave the country. In that case, a family member would have to call or write the district and confirm a student left. That’s a fairly low level of documentation to require, but when it’s confirmed they left the state or country, San Diego Unified – and California – would no longer be responsible for tracking them.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Why Big Civil Rights Groups Think Standardized Testing Is Good for Kids (Vox)

This is a pretty good rundown on where civil rights groups stand on standardized testing, the subject of a bill that passed the Senate Thursday.

At issue was the rewrite of No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002 and was long overdue for a revision. If you’re hazy on what No Child Left Behind even entails, don’t feel too guilty. It’s complicated. Here’s an explainer from Vox that should bring you up to speed on some of the basics.

What strikes me in these Vox articles is how confusing it is to even describe alliances in the education world. It’s no longer Democrats vs. Republicans. Two “civil rights groups,” can stand for opposing causes.

And the conversation sometimes reads more as a “House of Cards” rundown than a discussion about what works best when it comes to teaching and learning.

• Why Are Some Teachers Being Evaluated Using the Test Scores of Kids They Didn’t Teach? (Slate)

If there’s one reason to be skeptical about the idea of using student test scores to evaluate teacher performance, this might be it.

As Alexendria Neason points out, 42 states across the country now use student test score growth, at least in part, to determine whether teachers get promotions, keep their jobs or are determined to be effective.

While still controversial, it’s one thing to take that approach for educators who teach core subjects, like English or math. It’s another when test scores are used to rate music or gym teachers – or those teaching kids too young to take a standardized tests.

Some schools come up with a separate test to measure how much kids learned in these classes. Others take schoolwide test score averages – including those of kids they’ve never taught – and attribute them to the teacher. Which doesn’t seem fair at all, man.

• Things We Say to Kids That Sound Positive But Can Be Detrimental (The Washington Post)

We might think we’re helping kids by praising them when they almost get an answer right, or by telling them to turn their frowns upside down, but we miss a chance to show kids the intrinsic value of learning, Alfie Kohn writes:

“While ‘Good job!’ may seem like a supportive thing to say, that support is actually made conditional on the child’s doing what we ask or impressing us. What kids most need from adults, apart from nonjudgmental feedback and guidance, is unconditional support: the antithesis of a patronizing pat on the head for having jumped through our hoops. The solution, therefore, isn’t as simple as praising children’s effort instead of their ability, because the problem isn’t a function of what’s being praised — or, for that matter, how often praise is offered — but of praise itself.”

So, no more sugar-coating it, parents. When your kids get things wrong, let them know. Help them learn to appreciate the process of figuring things out. And try to remember to do that yourself.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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