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Are Virginia’s Dropout Numbers Too Good to Be True?

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Virginia appears to be making extraordinary progress in reducing the high school drop-out rate in public schools, according to data released yesterday by the McDonnell administration. The statewide dropout rate fell to 6.5 percent for the class of 2012, compared to 7.2 percent for the class of 2011 — a huge advance in just one year. Over the past five years, the statewide dropout rate has fallen by more than 25 percent.

How has Virginia’s educational establishment achieved such remarkable gains when progress had proven so elusive in the past?
Here’s what Patricia I. Wright, superintendent of public instruction, said in a press release: “The statewide improvements we celebrate today are the result of hundreds of individual success stories involving teachers, administrators and other educators who provided struggling and sometimes troubled students with the instruction, support and encouragement they needed to persevere and complete their diploma requirements.”

And here’s Board of Education President David M. Foster: “We are seeing better outcomes for more young Virginians because schools are able to identify at-risk students earlier and get them the help they need to succeed.”

If Wright and Foster are to be believed, then Virginia has cracked the code on one of the most persistent and bedeviling problems in U.S. public education. I’m not disparaging the results, which are very good news, if true. But I am not willing to swallow them without subjecting them to scrutiny.

Here’s why… According to the Governor’s press release:

Since 2011, high schools have had to meet an annual benchmark for graduation and completion to earn full accreditation under Virginia’s Standards of Learning accountability program. Schools receive full credit for students who earn diplomas and partial credit for students who remain enrolled, earn GEDs or otherwise complete high school.

In other words, school administrators have concrete incentives to bolster graduation rates, and roughly 40% of the five-year gains came in the year that the new benchmark came into effect. That raises the issue of whether we’re experiencing genuine progress or if administrators are gaming the system. Are schools are getting more lavish with social promotions? Are administrators manipulating statistics, reclassifying students from “dropout” to “GED,” “Certificate” or “Still Enrolled”? Or is something else entirely going on?

Whatever is occurring in Virginia, it does appear to be happening across the country. Dropout rates are declining nationally. That trend actually may help explain why test scores show so little improvement. Assuming that dropouts are among the lower-performing students academically, keeping more of them in school would tend to drag down average scores.

I’d like to believe that Virginia is successfully addressing one of society’s most intractable social problems. But I’m not willing to reach that conclusion simply on the say-so of Virginia’s educrats. I’m not saying that I don‘t believe the numbers, just that I’d like to see some confirmation that they reflect underlying reality.

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