On “Dropout Factories” & (Fraudulent) Graduation Rates in NJ

Posted on April 29, 2014

This NJ Star Ledger piece the other day reminded me of an issue I’ve been wanting to check out for some time now. I’m skeptical of graduation rates as a measure of student outcomes to begin with, because, of course, graduation can be strongly influenced by local norms and practices. As such, it’s really hard to validly compare graduation rates from one place to another or even over time, as graduation standards may change. Notably, arbitrary assignment of “passing” cut scores on high stakes assessment isn’t particularly helpful and can be quite harmful. But I digress.

What piqued my interest a while back was the apparent disconnect between cohort attrition measures from 9th to 12th grade, or 10th to 12th grade, and reported graduation rates. Indeed, these are two different things. BUT, it seems strange for example that North Star Academy in Newark could report a 100% graduation rate! and .3% dropout rate! while having approximately 50% attrition rate between grades 5 and 12! How can you lose half your kids over time and still have 100% graduation and effectively no dropouts. Of course the answer is that none of these are dropouts, but rather they are voluntary transfers (with no follow up to determine where they’ve gone or what happened to them).

In any case, it seemed at best, a bit disingenuous and at worst, outright fraudulent for North Star to present itself as near perfect, when a deeper dive into the data (something North Star’s own data driven leaders fail to ever report) suggest otherwise.

Here, I quickly explore the significance of this issue across charter and district schools statewide.

First, let’s look at 2013 graduation rates and the 2012-13 fall enrollment cohorts as seniors relative to themselves as freshman.

Slide1As the key indicates, orange dots are district cohort ratios – representing the senior class of 2013 as a percent of who they were as a freshman class of 2009-10. Green dots are graduation rates for all of the same district schools. Blue circles are reported graduation rates for charters and red squares are cohort ratios. The trendline is fit to charter and district school cohort ratios. In most cases, the cohort ratios are lower than the reported grad rates. But not by a whole lot. For TEAM Academy the two are close enough to overlap. For Central Jersey College Prep and University Academy, there is what appears to be a differential of about 5 to 7% or so.

But for North Star, the gap is huge. If we evaluate North Star on its reported graduation rate, the school looks great. Nearly perfect! But even compared to other schools statewide, on the same measure of cohort loss, North Star is no leader. Rather, it’s a laggard. (not a Paterson Sci/Tech or Hoboken laggard, but a laggard nonetheless).

Let’s take a look now at the 2012 and 2013 graduation rates, averaged, and the last 3 cohorts of sophomores to seniors, averaged just to see if the above single year estimates are anomalous.

Slide2Taking the two years of grad rates and three cohorts actually reveals that North Star a) falls even further below the trendline (worse than the average district school) AND b) still has a massive gap between reported grad rate and cohort loss. TEAM now also has a gap, but that gap is smaller than for North Star. Indeed, it is possible that TEAM is back filling enrollments (adding kids in high school to fill empty seats), but I’ll leave Ryan Hill, chief exec of TEAM to let me know if that’s the case.

Now, it’s certainly also possible that district schools in Newark are adding kids in upper grades, as they exit from North Star, or other charter or magnet schools. It is far less likely that many of these students are shifting to selective private schools (and upward, outward transfer) after the 10th grade.

Finally, let’s take a look at the gaps between reported graduation rates and cohort ratios, again using the last three sophomore to senior cohorts and last two years of graduation rates.

Slide3Consider this a test of the legitimacy of using the graduation rate to characterize the extent to which schools actually help students persist toward high school completion. The above graph suggests that North Star’s graduation rate is overstated by 10 to 15% averaged over time and that their graduation rate is far more inflated than nearly anyone else except American History High. TEAM is actually quite low in average difference between cohort attrition and reported graduation rate. The other high outlier here is Central Jersey College Prep.

Again, there can be a number of enrollment flow/transfer reasons for the gaps between cohort attrition and reported graduation rate. But, at the very least these figures should be regularly reported and used as a basis for evaluating the validity of reported graduation rates.




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