Incomparable — but not in a good way

Steven Miller

Despite reformers' best efforts, public-education establishments all across the country, for decades, have been remarkably successful in blocking significant change.

Several strategies have been employed, but nearly all of them have operated to keep voters in the dark about abject public-school performance.

One such old and reliable ploy is the Bogus Graduation Rate.

Years ago, Dr. Jay P. Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, focused attention on it, noting "the confusing, inconsistent, and sometimes misleading way in which the rate of high school completion is measured."

"Local and state public school officials report dropout and completion statistics that are difficult to grasp and often implausibly positive," he observed in a widely cited paper on high school graduation rates. "The way in which those statistics are calculated and how they should be interpreted is often opaque to the trained researcher, let alone the general public."

Here in Nevada as recently as 2000, senior staff at the Clark County School District was telling school trustees that the district was graduating 90.8 percent of its students. However, the National Center for Education Statistics that very year, itself relying on numbers reported to it by the State of Nevada, was reporting the statewide graduation rate as only 70 percent. While CCSD, with its large disadvantaged school populations, regularly brings down Nevada's statewide performance averages, here the district was claiming to excel the rest of the state by more than 20 points.

Clearly, NCES and CCSD were calculating the graduation rates in different ways. And though the NCES methodology was relatively straightforward (see the explanation at the bottom of this page), CCSD's approach is today deemed misleading.

When the Diplomas Count 2010 project of the public-education industry publication EdWeek released its national figures on state graduation rates for 2007, it listed Nevada as worst in the nation with a graduation rate of only a startling 41.8 percent. Yet Nevada's Department of Education for the same year reported a graduation rate of 67.4 percent (See, under "Students").

America's public-education graduation-rate reporting standards began changing in 2002, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act became law. Now, as a condition of receiving federal NCLB funds, states had to calculate graduation rates by one of several federally approved formulae. By 2008, 32 states had selected the so-called "leaver rate" formula. It divides the number of students leaving high school with a standard diploma by a sum combining that number with all those who leave with some other "completion credential" — or simply drop out.

Although the leaver-rate formula was some improvement over the variety of gimmicky formulae that many states had been using previously, it itself has been widely criticized. The reason: It, too, allows states and school districts to conceal from the public the full extent of public-school graduation failure. School systems — to ward off angry parents, voters and politicians — rig the output of the formula by manipulating two inputs: dropouts, which get under-reported, and the number of students moving away, which get artificially over-estimated.

Because each state still gets to decide for itself how to define dropouts and students moving away, the leaver formula — to the relief of interest groups that profit from the education status quo — makes valid comparisons across the states impossible, even among states supposedly using the same formula.

In 2005, as the inadequacies of the NCLB leaver formula became more widely recognized, the National Governors Association crafted an agreement among governors of the 50 states to adopt a simpler, cleaner formula. They jointly recognized that America's public-education troubles will never be fixed until candor and transparency come to the dropout issue.

The governors' chosen formula — called the "four-year adjusted cohort rate" — calculates the high-school graduation rate by dividing the number of on-time graduates in a given year by the number of first-time ninth graders who entered four years earlier. The NGA formula allowed only a little wiggle room to persist: States were permitted to count some "modified" diplomas as acceptable for meeting the definition of a graduate. They could also choose to reassign students with significant learning disabilities or severely limited English proficiency to later cohorts of entering ninth graders based on an adjusted timeline for graduation (See page 6 of the latest NGA report).

Today, 26 states — not including Nevada — are reporting their graduation rates under the NGA formula, and another 19 states — also not including Nevada — are publicly committed to coming aboard by the end of 2011. Nevada will finally move to the NGA reporting standard in 2012, but only grudgingly. To get NCLB dollars, says the federal Department of Education, states must use the NGA reporting standard by that date.

The move to the new graduation-rate formula doesn't please high-profile officials in either the Nevada Department of Education or the state's largest school district. They make it clear they'd prefer to keep in place Nevada's old, untranslatable system, even though — or perhaps because — it prevents parents and voters from grasping the full dimensions of the state's graduation-rate problem.

"Dropout factories" is what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls schools where only 60 percent or less of ninth graders graduate four years later. By that standard, the Clark County School District — containing over three-quarters of Nevada's students — is itself a huge such factory, producing human tragedy on a grand scale.

Yet officials remain hostile to public sunlight on the reality. State Superintendent of Education Keith Rheault is still "rankled" by even the nationwide move to the leaver rate several years ago.

"District and state officials," wrote Las Vegas Sun education reporter Emily Richmond in June, "say they're not giving up the public relations battle over reporting graduation rates.

"They intend to compile and report what they argue are more comprehensive snapshots of graduation rates, which include adjusted diplomas awarded to special education students, as well as data on students who are successful in Adult Education programs but might take longer than four years to finish course work."

Clearly, no one opposes comprehensive or detailed information bearing on the dropout problem. Public education administrators are not barred from using any internal data to accomplish their mission.

No, the real issue is whether a corruptly motivated obfuscation, one that has already gone on far too long, will be allowed to continue to mislead and confuse broad swaths of the public.

There's a clear fear, here, of full public understanding — and of the consequences that could flow through Nevada's political system and government, putting at risk every career that rests upon a hitherto solid foundation of public ignorance.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.