Thursday, July 13, 2006

City school board members are angry over a high school dropout study

Joe Smydo:

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.

A+ Schools Response to Rand's Pittsburgh Public Schools Drop-Out Rate Analysis

Time to Face Our Education Crisis

Let's turn the tide and help black males graduate



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