Are Virginia’s Dropout Numbers Too Good to Be True?

by James A. Bacon

Virginia appears to be making extraordinary progress in reducing the high school drop-out rate in public schools, according to data released yesterday by the McDonnell administration. The statewide dropout rate fell to 6.5 percent for the class of 2012, compared to 7.2 percent for the class of 2011 — a huge advance in just one year. Over the past five years, the statewide dropout rate has fallen by more than 25 percent.

How has Virginia’s educational establishment achieved such remarkable gains when progress had proven so elusive in the past?

Here’s what Patricia I. Wright, superintendent of public instruction, said in a press release: “The statewide improvements we celebrate today are the result of hundreds of individual success stories involving teachers, administrators and other educators who provided struggling and sometimes troubled students with the instruction, support and encouragement they needed to persevere and complete their diploma requirements.”

And here’s Board of Education President David M. Foster: “We are seeing better outcomes for more young Virginians because schools are able to identify at-risk students earlier and get them the help they need to succeed.”

If Wright and Foster are to be believed, then Virginia has cracked the code on one of the most persistent and bedeviling problems in U.S. public education. I’m not disparaging the results, which are very good news, if true. But I am not willing to swallow them without subjecting them to scrutiny.

Here’s why… According to the Governor’s press release:

Since 2011, high schools have had to meet an annual benchmark for graduation and completion to earn full accreditation under Virginia’s Standards of Learning accountability program. Schools receive full credit for students who earn diplomas and partial credit for students who remain enrolled, earn GEDs or otherwise complete high school.

In other words, school administrators have concrete incentives to bolster  graduation rates, and roughly 40% of the five-year gains came in the year that the new benchmark came into effect. That raises the issue of whether we’re experiencing genuine progress or if administrators are gaming the system. Are schools are getting more lavish with social promotions? Are administrators manipulating statistics, reclassifying students from “dropout” to “GED,” “Certificate” or “Still Enrolled”? Or is something else entirely going on?

Whatever is occurring in Virginia, it does appear to be happening across the country. Dropout rates are declining nationally. That trend actually may help explain why test scores show so little improvement. Assuming that dropouts are among the lower-performing students academically, keeping more of them in school would tend to drag down average scores.

I’d like to believe that Virginia is successfully addressing one of society’s most intractable social problems. But I’m not willing to reach that conclusion simply on the say-so of Virginia’s educrats. I’m not saying that I don‘t believe the numbers, just that I’d like to see some confirmation that they reflect underlying reality.

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  1. Is it possible that as a result in the downturn in the economy that high school students simply aren’t seeing the same opportunities available to them without a diploma and are therefore more likely to stay in school?

    Also note that this trend follows a similar trend in the U.S. as a whole over the same period. Source:

    Additionally extrapolating from the above source, Virginia’s graduation rates at least prior to 2012 seem to be about average, perhaps slightly better.

  2. Hokie – not sure there is any correlation between staying in school and job opportunities at the high school level.

    the problem in the US is that a non-college-bound high school education won’t get you a a decent, benefits-providing job any more in part because US schools requirements for a bare HS diploma are terrible compared to what most European non-college HS graduates get – a fairly technical education that qualifies their kids for jobs that employees in the US cannot fill – they are not college-degree jobs but they require a technical education – one where the applicant has a good command of English, science and math.

    If you want to see more proof of this – our non-college track HS graduates cannot even get into our own armed services which requires young people to understand and be able to maintain/use high tech weaponry and equipment like field GPS , drones, etc.

    Many HS kids who CAN get into the Armed Services will do so to get the health care benefits for their family as, again, blue collar jobs with family benefits are pretty scarce unless you have a solid technical education – in which case you find a job in the market and don’t need to join the Armed Services.

    The “blue collar” jobs have morphed into technical skilled jobs whereas kids, parents and schools tend to not be focused on technical education.

    Community college is a good alternate path – I think Community Colleges are absolutely critical in giving our non-4-year college folks a viable path to a decent career.

    Everything from medical imaging to vehicle repair – all high tech, all now requiring a solid basis in English/math/science.

    This needs to be Virginia’s important goal IMHO.

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