Diplomas Count 2010: Graduation by the Numbers--Putting Data to Work for Student Success

Eric Ulas

Editorial Projects in Education
June 2010

Did you know that just 2 percent of Americans earned high school
diplomas in 1870? That’s just one of the tidbits you’ll find in this
year’s Diplomas Count (find 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2006
here). In addition to the usual graduation statistics update, this
edition attempts to chr
onicle “data in action,” i.e., how the smart use of information can
raise graduation numbers, mainly by identifying students at risk for
dropping out. As usual the news isn’t good: The graduation rate hovers
around 70 percent, having actually declined slightly from 2005 to 2007
(the most recent year of available data). But that’s somewhat
misleading, because while the overall graduation rate has fallen, rates
for every racial group have improved. This is Simpson’s Paradox
in action, as the lower overall number can be attributed to the fact
that the population of students most at risk of dropping out—minorities,
especially Latinos—is composing an increasing percentage of the overall
student body. Perhaps most interesting is that just twenty-five of the
nations’ 11,000 school districts account for a whopping 20 percent of
all dropouts, or 250,000 students. New York City and Los Angeles are the
worst offenders, each failing to graduate more than 40,000 students
every year. Admittedly, these districts are the nation’s largest and
would statistically have more dropouts than smaller ones, but it’s also a
lesson in how much difference data systems could make by being used
well in just a handful of places. The accompanying journalistic pieces
are heartwarming: School leaders responding to data with tutors,
coaches, and mentors; teachers tracking down missing students and
helping them enroll in summer school; and district and state leaders
improving the use of data by tracking across borders, even state lines,
to make sure no child falls through the cracks. The bottom line is this:
Dropouts remain a huge problem, but robust and consistent use of data
is a promising solution. Read it here and check out the accompanying web materials here.

Janie Scull
Janie Scull is a Research Analyst and Production Manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute