Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Statistics Dropout

So this morning I'm reading this article about how former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin will not be running for the legislature again in the next (upcoming?) election. Instead, he's going to start working full time on improving aboriginal high school graduation rates.

"Something like 41 per cent of aboriginals between the ages of 25 to 34 have not completed high school, compared to 18 per cent in the rest of Canadian society," Martin said.

18% sounded shockingly high to me - so I did a check on US high school graduation rates for comparison. As it turns out, ours is roughly similar. According to the National Center for Education Statistics - well, the numbers are complicated (because what counts as a "dropout," really?), but taken on the whole we seem to have a dropout rate of 14-16% in any given year. (The numbers linked on the page will make it look more like 7-10%, but if you read carefully, there are two separate classifications of "dropout" - an "event" dropout being someone who formally withdrew from school in the year of data collection and a "status" dropout being someone who was already not attending school, for whatever reason. I suppose one could argue that this overcounts a bit - becuase "status" dropouts may later choose to attend school again. But I'm guessing Canada counts its number the same way, so this is a fair comparison.)

On the one hand, it's gratifying to know that we're doing (marginally) better than Canada keeping people in school. I'll file this in my copious list of examples that run contrary to popular Canadian stereotypes of the US. On the other hand - 14-16% is still high, i.e. nothing to be proud of. Assuming - I mean - that you think it's a good thing that people eventually go on to graduate from high school, which ideally, I don't necessarily. (People who are not academically inclined should feel free to enter the workforce early and get on with their lives. Ironically, as much as I complain about the low quality of what passes for education in the US, I also think there should be a little less "schooling" (as distinct from education, mind you) than there currently is. Long story.)

But I'm not a big proponent of government meddling, so I tend to think that the dropout rate simply is what it is. I don't advocate (or even have) any clever "solutions" to the "problem."

What I did get out of this, though, was another neat example of statistics-fixing. Take a look at this page on the same subject. It reports a whopping 29% dropout rate for the late 90s (!!!). So how did the numbers come out so different?

Check this out - in his own words:

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) finds a national high school completion rate of 86% for the class of 1998. The discrepancy between the NCES' finding and this report's finding of a 71% rate is largely caused by NCES' counting of General Educational Development (GED) graduates and others with alternative credentials as high school graduates, and by its reliance on a methodology that is likely to undercount dropouts.

In other words, this guy's report TOTALLY and DELIBERATELY misses the point of what the graduation rate is supposed to measure. "Graduation" only counts if it's from a traditional high school? Really? And an equivalent (or superior) education of the kind that you might get on your own (GED) or through alternative schooling (homeschool, etc.) just doesn't matter? In other words, it's "number of diplomas awarded at traditional graduation ceremony" that we're interested in and not "completion of secondary education or equivalent?"

What a boob.