Saturday, May 12, 2012

Reno grad-rate jump too good to be true?

During Heath Morrison's short tenure with the Washoe County School District, the graduation rate jumped from 56 percent in 2009 to 70 percent last year.  It's perhaps his signature accomplishment there, one that helped him win national acclaim and get the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools job.

It has also raised questions, because it relies on data that his staff recalculated and because it rose so fast. Newspaper columnist and labor activist Andrew Barbano dubbed it "The Mythological Morrison Miracle," and the local NAACP branch is reviewing the data,  with the branch president saying he suspects the jump is too big to represent reality.

By any national measure, the four-year tracking rate that Morrison introduced is more reliable than the old Nevada method (read details of both rates and see the Washoe County numbers here, starting on page 50). It's the one North Carolina and many other states use.

Morrison also introduced a door-to-door campaign to locate the hundreds of students a year who were listed as "vanished,"  along with those who had officially dropped out,  and get them into school. If dropouts who are 18 or older enroll in the Washoe Adult High School, they are switched into the "transfer out" category, which means they're removed from the calculation entirely, counting neither as graduates or dropouts.

Morrison says it's better to have those young adults working on their education than sitting at home,  but he acknowledges it's too early to say whether they'll be successful.

In April, the Reno Gazette-Journal did an extensive "fact checker" analysis of the grad-rate jump. Reporter Mark Robison found that some of the improvement comes from better tracking of students, and he quoted a statistical expert as saying that makes year-to-year comparisons questionable.  However,  he also found experts agreeing that both data-tracking and graduation rates are improving in Reno,  even if one can argue over the amount.

"What rises above in this discussion is the fact that the district is using the same standard measurement in 2011 as it did in 2009. And no one is questioning the accuracy of the numbers," he wrote. "In fact, there is agreement that improving the accuracy of the dropout rate is praiseworthy. Should the increase come with an asterisk? Perhaps. But the numbers are the numbers, and therefore it's fair for the district to report a 14 percentage-point jump in its graduation rate."

Unfortunately, the Gazette-Journal doesn't offer a free link to this article; if you want to pay for an archived copy, go here.

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