Sound Off: Dropout study absolutely wrong

By Dwight Lundstrom

Highly accomplished educators from a prestigious university attempted to oversimplify the complicated issue of high school dropouts, created a buzz by using inflammatory language, and let their flawed conclusions harm good schools.

Oak Harbor was incorrectly included among 22 high schools in Washington state (and 1,700 nationally) listed by Johns Hopkins University researchers as “dropout factories.” The report cited a dropout rate in Oak Harbor of 41 percent – more than triple the actual rate for the year in question. After being contacted by Oak Harbor officials, the lead author of the study, Robert Balfanz, acknowledged that he used data that would lead to inaccurate conclusions for Oak Harbor and other Washington schools. He has offered to take a second look at the data.

Unfortunately, much of the damage is done. When the list came out, it became front page headlines and the lead story on television news. A retraction will barely be mentioned, if at all. It’s very difficult to unring that bell.

The study, using raw data collected from the federal Department of Education, applied a simplistic calculation. The authors simply looked at reported numbers of “freshmen” and compared it to the reported numbers of “seniors” three years later. The difference was assumed, without further analysis, to be the number of dropouts.

Oak Harbor, however, is one of several districts in Washington that counts its freshmen and seniors differently than the national norm. In Oak Harbor, we categorize students based on the credits they have earned rather than the number of years they have been in school.

Students must achieve five credits to move on to the sophomore level. Therefore, our freshman count is inflated because it includes many “second year freshmen” who have not reached the minimum number of credits. Likewise, our senior count excludes many “true seniors” who are short on credits.

Since Johns Hopkins made no adjustment for this system, the calculation created more than 100 phantom dropouts each year and drastically reduced the graduation rate. The Johns Hopkins report calculated a 59 percent graduation rate in Oak Harbor in 2004. That same year, using the state’s comprehensive graduation formula — which tracks every student that transfers, falls behind, drops out, or graduates late — you get very different results. According to state figures, Oak Harbor had an on-time graduation rate of 87 percent in 2004 and an extended graduation rate of 91 percent. Oak Harbor is consistently above state averages and, in most years, is considered a leader when it comes to graduating our kids.

If the study was accurate, it deserved to become headlines. But, nothing substitutes for local knowledge. Accurate and consistent graduation data compiled by the state is available to everyone on the Web. Most reporters either never checked for corroborating evidence or they chose to ignore the glaring discrepancies. Some journalists who know their communities well, immediately saw the listing made little sense (The Whidbey News-Times included). They quickly noted that good schools were on the list, while many schools with high dropout rates were not. Two Seattle area newspapers did not go with the story because, they told us, “it did not pass the smell test.” Unfortunately, they were the exception.

Oak Harbor has always taken the dropout problem seriously and we recognize there is more work to be done. We know that success in ninth grade is a leading factor when it comes to kids staying in school, so five years ago we started the “Islands Program” to help freshmen get a good start in high school.

We have a truancy officer who literally knocks on the doors of students who are not showing up at school. We have an after-school tutoring program daily to help all students. The high school even provides a late bus so kids can take advantage of the opportunity. We have mandatory meetings for students and parents to make sure everyone understands the risks of falling behind and the opportunities available to help them work their way out.

The new WASL graduation requirements are presenting new challenges. We don’t want kids who are struggling to pass WASL in reading, writing, and math to give up and drop out. We are providing specific help to these kids through a variety of means.

Above all, community support is vital to make these efforts successful. It’s important that we not let this mislabeling distract us from the job that needs to be done. Every dropout is a loss to the entire community, and we need to continue working together to ensure success for every student.

Dwight Lundstrom is principal of Oak Harbor High School.

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