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Michigan makes strides to improve dropout rate data

Jun 7, 2014

Credit alamosbasement / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Our colleague Jake Neher with the Michigan Public Radio Network filed a story today on high school dropout rate data. Turns out Michigan used to be really bad at calculating the dropout rate.

Neher says a 2006 state audit found the Center for Education Performance and Information (CEPI) was "not providing reliable data on high school dropouts." But Neher says CEPI has stepped up its game, thanks in large part to a new system that "tracks students through their school careers." Lawmakers also passed legislation to allow the state to "access school records that are critical for calculating graduation and dropout rates."

So what exactly is the state's high school dropout rate? It was 3.0% for the 2003-04 school year. For the 2012-13 school year the dropout rate was much higher: 10.5%

But remember, and this is key, it's not necessarily true that the state's dropout rate increased over the last decade. This report is not comparing apples to apples. It's using a different, seemingly more robust system to calculate the dropout rates. So what looks like a super low dropout rate in 2003 could just be inadequate data.

Turns out Michigan's not the only state with a dropout rate calculation problem.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez did a piece a couple years ago explaining why dropout data is so unreliable.

Part of the problem is that every state has had a different definition for dropout. In some states, for example, students who leave school aren't counted as having dropped out if they enroll in adult education classes like night school.

Many schools don't count kids as dropouts if they enroll in a GED program. The U.S. Department of Education says GED recipients should be counted as dropouts but that rule isn't uniformly applied.

And then there are students who did drop out but aren't counted because they go to prison. Very few school districts count kids who are incarcerated — even in juvenile justice facilities — in dropout statistics. Some schools don't think they should be held responsible if a kid quits school and gets in trouble with the law.

The result? A bunch of states wind up "fudging" the data. 

Sanchez says some states now use a tracking system similar to the one Michigan has instituted, and that the tracking system is viewed as "the most promising approach to gathering accurate dropout data yet."