Milwaukee near bottom for graduation rates: But methods questioned in study that reaches finding
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 19--Milwaukee public high schools have one of the worst graduation rates in the country among large school districts, according to a new report that takes the unusual step of trying to make comparisons across large school districts as well as states.
Ninety-four of the 100 largest school districts in the country have higher graduation rates than Milwaukee, where the graduation rate is 45%, according to a study the Manhattan Institute, a think tank in New York.
That compares with 58% in Philadelphia, 63% in New Orleans and 50% in Chicago for the class of 2003, the most recent year for which data was available.
The annual study broke down results district for the first time in four years. Most previous versions of the study have made only state-by-state comparisons. Some of the largest districts -- like Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina -- are countywide districts, however, making apples-to-apples comparisons still tricky.
The Manhattan Institute studies have repeatedly found that while Wisconsin has one of the highest graduation rates overall, it also has one of the worst graduation rates for African-American students. This year, Wisconsin came in third, with an overall graduation rate of 85%. For African-Americans, the statewide graduation rate was 55% -- the second-lowest in the country. MPS was about 60% black in 2003, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Critics have long said that the Manhattan Institute's methodology underestimates the graduation rate nationally, particularly in urban areas and among minority students. State and district estimates put the 2003 graduation rate in Milwaukee at 61% and 67%, respectively.
In the past, the institute has consistently published studies with findings that support school vouchers.
But "the bottom line is that graduation rates are very low in Milwaukee," said Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the institute. "Even when we only reported statewide numbers, we could see from the racial breakouts how Milwaukee was probably driving the results."
Greene will be a leader in an upcoming study of the voucher program in Milwaukee, which will compare test scores over time from a group of students attending voucher schools with those at charter schools and traditional public schools.
Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos said he views the report "as being a mathematical exercise, but it doesn't really tell us the story of what happens to children from ninth through 12th grade."
However, he added that "all of these reports are good to some degree because it challenges us to do a much better job." He cited the move to smaller high schools in Milwaukee, which greatly expanded in 2003, as a key part of the effort to improve the city's graduation rate.
Even before the study was released this morning, a dispute had emerged between Greene and the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., with several teachers union officials on its board.
Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, said a report he plans to release today on graduation rates will be "far different than Jay Greene banging out the same numbers he's banged out before using a flawed methodology."
Mishel and Greene have arrived at vastly different national estimates of graduation rates. For instance, while Greene puts the nationwide graduation rate for African-Americans at about 55%, Mishel says it's closer to 75%.
Broadly speaking, Greene divides the number of students receiving diplomas the number of students who started high school.
Mishel criticizes Greene for not following individual students or groups of students over time but instead relying on broader population and school district data that he says is murky and tough to compare across states. Greene responds that Mishel's work focuses on a "sample" of the population and can therefore miss some of the harder-to-find young people -- like dropouts -- and provide a rose-colored view of reality.
The debate comes at a time when the nation is focused on high schools and dropouts. Oprah Winfrey devoted two episodes of her show to the subject a week ago, and several political and advocacy groups have argued in recent months over how to compare test scores and graduation rates across states.
Jean Whitcomb, the education data consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, said the state calculated its figure of 61% in 2003 looking at the number of students who received diplomas divided that same number plus the number of dropouts.
New tracking system
That formula "has its limitations," she said, adding that the current system of tracking student transfers and dropouts assigning each student a personal identification number is much more reliable. The department began phasing in that system in 2004.
"If people really want to know if kids are graduating and at what rates, this is the way to find that out," she said.
She criticized graduation rate estimates that rely too much on ninth-grade enrollment, noting that more students are held back in the ninth grade than any other year, resulting in a skewed analysis. Greene says he takes this into account and fact-checks his estimates of ninth-grade enrollment against census figures showing the number of 14-year-olds. He said the number of ninth-graders put into his formula is adjusted for "population changes."
However, Andrekopoulos and Deb Lindsey, the director of research and assessment for MPS, say the report does not account enough for the high mobility rates in urban areas, particularly those with school voucher programs, where students might leave a public high school after ninth grade for a voucher school or a suburban school district.
"Milwaukee and a couple of other districts nationally that have very large voucher programs are probably disadvantaged these kinds of calculations because of the non-inclusion of private school students being paid for public school funds," Lindsey says.
Through the voucher program, low-income students can attend private schools with state-funded tuition vouchers.
The Manhattan Institute does not count GED degrees as diplomas. The Economic Policy Institute puts them in a separate category, so they are not part of the overall graduation rate.
The report released this morning also found that girls graduate at a significantly higher rate than boys across the country. In Milwaukee, the report puts the graduation rate for girls at 53%, compared with 39% for boys.
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