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Sarasota Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 8 years ago

My View

by: Rod Thomson

The numbers tell the story and, my, what a convoluted, nearly senseless story it is. But after seeing the numbers, you will understand why the Sarasota County School District, and pretty much all school districts, do not want parents and taxpayers to know about them.

The dropout rate is one of several methods that gauge the effectiveness of a school district. In Sarasota County, it is 2.1% officially. That sounds outstanding. A common sense sort of person would naturally think the district has a stellar 97.9% graduation rate.

But that would be wrong. It’s all about the calculations, who is doing them and what they want the numbers to show. And the education industry is masterful at playing the numbers and saying something quite different from what is true.

For background, these are the folks who do not include capital expenditures in what is spent to educate a child each year, as if the money spent on schools and buses and computers and whiteboards does not count toward educating the children. In fact, it does not count for the education bureaucrats, except for the fact that you pay it and they spend it. So in their world, that $120 million spent on the new Riverview High School? Doesn’t count in per-student spending. Never will.

This long-time sleight of hand cuts the published spending-per-student number by more than half as more and more items are shifted to the capital budget.

So now let’s look to see how the dropout and graduation rates are handled.

The graduation rate is pegged at 86%, not 97.9%. Why the difference? The dropout rate is figured simply by counting the students who drop out during any single school year, after everyone has enrolled and before anyone moves up. So the students who drop out during the summer — those who don’t return for their following year, which is when most dropping out happens — are not counted in the dropout rate.

Cool math, huh?

It gets more creative. That 86% number is not altogether real, either. That number starts out based on what would be the most reasonable method of measuring the overall dropout rate: Take the total number of 12th-grade graduates and divide them by the total number of ninth-grade students four years earlier.

Unfortunately, when you do that, you get a far lower percentage than what the district provides as the graduation rate.

That is because the district number is derived by “adjusting” the base ninth-grade figure to account for students who come and go from the district.

Here is the explanation from the district’s Research and Assessment Department:

“The cohort count is adjusted over the four-year period for transfers into each grade (e.g., new student from Michigan) and transfers out (e.g., kid enrolls in private school). The state performs these analyses and generates the rates.”

The formula seems to be a bit of a mystery. Because the percentage of those not graduating should not be more than double what it is without the “adjustments.”

To be fair to Sarasota County schools, this deception is common practice in the education establishment throughout the country. So in any school district you look at, when you read what officials release for the media — and the mainstream media is disappointingly consistent in their eagerness to regurgitate anything the district releases — you are not reading the real story, certainly not the entire story. It is merely the official story.

So here is what most people would consider the real or more complete numbers, and they are all available from the school district.

The percentage of students graduating, as you can see in the chart below, is actually 70.2%. There were 3,776 students enrolled in the ninth grade in the 2005-06 school year. Four years later in 2008-09, the number of students earning a standard diploma was 2,652. Do the math the old-fashioned way. The result is 70.2%.

Adjusting for students coming and going should be pretty close to a wash. But that is not at all what the official school district numbers suggest.

Conversely, this calculation puts the more realistic dropout rate at 29.8%. We have a school system considered one of the best in Florida — one with enviable demographics for children entering the system — that is losing nearly one out of three students. How many ways are there to count that other than failure?

• Official dropout rate in Sarasota County: 2.1%
• Official graduation rate in Sarasota County: 86%
• The percentage of Sarasota County students entering ninth grade in 2005-06 who earned diplomas in 2008-09: 70.2%.

Year by year breakdown of 2008-09 graduates.

Year                       Grade 9     Grade 10     Grade 11     Grade 12     Diplomas
2005-06                   3,776
2006-07                                      3,474
2007-08                                                           3,021
2008-09                                                                               2,730
2008-09                                                                                                   2,652
Source: Sarasota County School District

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].

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