Friday, December 3, 2010

"Dropout factory" definition error by Dallas Morning News & other media

A major error in the definition of “dropout factory” is being made by many news organizations across the US leading to significant errors in judgement regarding actual progress. That error mistakenly included in the "Dropout Factory" definition the last of the four critical steps high school students make on their way to graduation, the move from 12th grade to actually getting a diploma.  The "Dropout Factory" definition only counts the first three moves: 9th to 10th, 10th to 11th, and 11th to 12th. It does not count the move to graduation as graduation data is very difficult to consistently secure on a national basis.  This fact, combined with monumental increases in the Texas 12th grade dropout rate since 2006 due to raising graduation standards, is the reason that Texas, while leading the nation in loosing 77 "Dropout Factories," still had a decrease in the Texas graduation rate of 0.4%.

In Dallas this error was made by the Dallas Morning News on 12-4-10.  That error can be found online with the posting of “Hits and Misses” . That posting includes the following statements: "The state has considerably fewer "dropout factories" than eight years ago. That's the result released this week by America's Promise Alliance and several other organizations that have studied dropout patterns across the country. In 2002, 240 Texas high schools qualified as dropout factories, meaning that 60 percent or fewer of their students graduated."

The "dropout factory" term was defined John Hopkins University in their historic 2007 study.  It does NOT refer to schools wherein "60 percent or fewer of their students graduated." It only counts students who make it from 9th grade to 12th grade, not those who graduate.

On page 24 of the “Building a Grad Nation report," linked from , the definition of “dropout factory” is clearly given. Graduation data is much harder to collect on a national scale and therefore was not used in the “dropout factory” definition. Instead that definition is based on the "promotion rate."  That is the percentage of 9th grade enrollment reflected in the 12th grade enrollment three years later.

For Texas, in 2002, 2003 and 2004, almost all seniors graduated. This change in definition by the Dallas Morning News makes little difference in such years. Only 0.7% of the original 9th grade enrollment were missing for the Class of 2002. Those years the 12th grade enrollment and the number of diplomas given out in Texas were almost equal. In 2004 Texas actually gave out about 800 more diplomas that it had 12th graders listed as enrolled. Those are the numbers reflected in the TEA (Texas Education Agency) data base. (See this history and data in a spreadsheet of Texas State Enrollment by Grade just over half way down the page at

By 2008 in Texas this situation had dramatically changed. Texas had wisely implemented more meaningful graduation requirements. By 2008 the percentage of senior enrollment “missing at graduation” had gone up over 10-fold from 0.7% to 7.85%! Thus 21,485 Texas seniors of the 273,606 seniors in the Class of 2008 were “missing at graduation.” These dropouts are not counted by the “dropout factory” definition erroneously being used by the Dallas Morning News and other media. (Statistical data used in these calculations is secured from the Texas Education Agency web site at .) That is why this newest America's Promise study reports on page 27 that, in spite of Texas leading the nation with 77 fewer "dropout factories," Texas had a graduation rate that went down 0.4% from 2002 to 2008, instead of going up.

Yes, Texas is still making progress. We now have more accurate data available. We also must have the more demanding standards for graduation that were implemented after 2004. But we are not making progress when the media are less than precise in the way they report on that progress and the data available. We must practice the same accuracy we want our students to master. The Dallas Morning News needs to correct this error.

It needs to be emphasized that this error by the Dallas Morning News is repeated across the US by several other news organizations.  Too many news media staff are not familiar with the definitions involved. This is another issue we face in the battle fighting very real, and very high, dropout rates across the nation.