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NCLB Outrages

Angry board spurns dropout study

Comments from Annie: Within this article is a chart of sample estimated graduation rates for school districts nationwide.

The study has the Pittsburgh school board members furious because the estimated rates are higher than the rates the school system has posted. Yet, the representatives of the study contend that the rates are more accurate than those of the school system and if you look at the chart they are, in fact, fairly average, in the larger scheme, for large urban school districts (according to this study.)

The Pittsburgh city school Superintendent, Mark Roosevelt, has no fear in the face of the results from this study that he commissioned.

He has prepared an "Excellence for All" achievement plan [which] calls for increasing the graduation rate 10 percentage points by 2009. He admits that “There are a lot of national studies showing kids are bored in high school," and will remedy this situation with “a new standardized curriculum for grades six through 12, to be developed by New York-based Kaplan K12 Learning Services…”

I am having some trouble digesting his remedy. He is going to fight boredom with “a new standardized curriculum”?

(Please see the website for the chart.)

Joe Smydo and Tim Grant

City school board members angrily denounced a study that estimates 35 percent of high school students -- including nearly half of all black male students -- drop out of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The Rand Corp. study, commissioned by city school Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and released yesterday, said the drop-out rate was average for a large, urban district.

But most members of the school board questioned the accuracy of the research, and at least two members promised to mount a vigorous campaign to discredit the report and minimize any damage it might cause the district.

"It's very incendiary to put something like this out there when there's so much gray area and speculation," board member Randall Taylor said at a meeting last night. "For us to tell the city we are not graduating this many students, this is devastating to the city."

Board member Mark Brentley Sr. was appalled to find out that Rand had posted the study on its Web site yesterday. He encouraged his colleagues to demand it be pulled off the site or at least include a disclaimer stating that the study is not accepted by the school board nor is it the official stance of the board.

"This is misleading and can be hurtful to people who have worked so hard," Mr. Brentley said. "This is one company's opinion or guesstimate and can be damaging if it's released. Let's dig more, then put out something more accurate, and if it's close to those numbers, let's go with it and stand by it."

Rand representatives, however, stood by their study.

Researcher Brian Gill said the study shows that there's a "lot of improvement possible here," and Mr. Roosevelt, who did not attend last night's Education Committee meeting, said in an earlier interview that he couldn't agree more.

"We don't intend to let this sit on the shelf," he said of Rand's work. "We intend to use it to try to make things better."

To arrive at their estimates, Dr. Gill and colleague John Engberg tracked two classes of students from their entry into high school until the time they graduated or dropped out. Rand said researchers traditionally have used less reliable means to calculate graduation and dropout rates.

Rand estimated that 64 percent of Pittsburgh students graduate within five years of entering public high school. They looked at a five-year period because many students repeat ninth grade. As many as 2 per-cent of students remained in school after five years and were not counted toward graduation or dropout rates, Dr. Gill said.

Rand tracked 6,100 students who entered ninth grade during the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 years.

The biggest bone of contention at last night's meeting had to do with the 20 percent of students who left the district during the study and were unaccounted for.

"What did you do with the 20 percent? You have no idea what happened to these kids," said board member Theresa Colaizzi. "There's some uncertainty about the graduation rate because we don't know what happened to 20 percent of the kids."

Dr. Gill said they performed the study on the prediction that 40 percent of the missing 20 percent did graduate.

Rand representatives said use of student data to determine the dropout rate is cutting-edge research and more accurate than other methods of calculating the rate, such as dividing the number of students who received diplomas in the spring by the number who entered 12th grade the previous fall.

The state, which uses a calculation Rand considers less accurate than its own, puts Pittsburgh's graduation rate at 74 percent. That's compared with Rand's estimate of 64 percent.

School board member Patrick Dowd said he has been skeptical of the state's numbers. The Rand report, he said, seems a more accurate picture of the dropout rate.

"Rather than reject or stiff-arm the data we're looking at, we should try to understand it," Mr. Dowd said. "We're not far afield looking at a 64 percent graduation rate. That's something as a board we should take ownership of. We need to look at how we can move to 100 percent."

Because states compute the rate differently and disagree about who to count, Rand said comparing Pittsburgh to urban districts nationwide wasn't a straightforward process. Researchers concluded, however, that Pittsburgh fell "roughly in the middle."

Mr. Roosevelt said the study would be useful for his upcoming initiative on high school reform, which he described as his most significant undertaking for the coming school year. His "Excellence for All" achievement plan calls for increasing the graduation rate 10 percentage points by 2009.

The study found wide disparity in graduation and dropout rates at the city's 11 high schools.

Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Downtown, had the highest graduation rate (85 percent) and the lowest dropout rate (15 percent). Peabody High School in East Liberty had the lowest graduation rate (52 percent) and shared the highest dropout rate (46 percent) with Oliver High School in Marshall-Shadeland.

CAPA is a highly regarded magnet school. Oliver and Peabody, serving poor, minority populations, are known for achievement problems.

District-wide, female students have a higher graduation rate (69 percent) than male students (59 percent), and white students have a higher graduation rate (70 percent) than black students (59 percent). Rand said lower graduation rates for male students and black students reflect national trends.

The district was aware of its racial achievement gap, but Rand's study offered more evidence of the urgent need to reach out to black male students. While 64 percent of black female students graduate, Rand said, only 51 percent of black male students do so.

The racial disparity was greatest at Carrick High School, which graduates an estimated 71 percent of white students and 43 percent of black students.

"Understanding the graduation racial gap in the district requires looking within the individual schools themselves," the Rand report said.
Mr. Roosevelt said he believes many city students have dropped out because they entered high school unprepared for work at that level.
"They get into Algebra I, and they're just terrified," he said.

He said he began addressing that problem by including low-performing middle schools in a group of 22 schools he closed June 14. He hopes a new standardized curriculum for grades six through 12, to be developed by New York-based Kaplan K12 Learning Services, also will boost achievement.

In addition, Mr. Roosevelt cited new professional development efforts and a proposal to bring in Community Education Partners of Nashville, Tenn., to operate an alternative program for students with behavior problems.

"There are a lot of national studies showing kids are bored in high school," he said.
In its report, Rand said it supported statewide databases that would uniformly track student activity. Dr. Gill said he'd like to do more work with Pittsburgh's data, such as using it to identify potential dropouts so the district could get them special help.

(Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548. Tim Grant can be reached at tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591. )

— Joe Smydo and Tim Grant
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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