Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 762: N.C. Spins Graduation Into a Web of Confusion

While reading the media recounts of Ronald Reagan, I came across a column written by Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter. I’ve always admired Ms. Noonan’s way with words. A talented communicator, she describes issues and situations with words you can visualize. In the Wall Street Journal, Ms. Noonan described Reagan’s perception of liberal intellectuals as those who “tended to tie themselves in great webs of complexity, webs they’d often spun themselves — great, complicated things that they’d get stuck in, and finally get out of, only to go on and construct a new web for mankind to get caught in. The busy little spiders from Marx through Bloomsbury . . . were truly the stupidest brilliant people who ever lived.”

When reading these words my mind quickly turned to the June State Board of Education meeting. The “web” of “Graduation Rates and State Report Card” agenda item was quickly removed from discussion. For possibly more spinning? However, the executive summary of this agenda item was released before removal from the day’s discussion.

Let’s remember why this subject is touchy for the State Board. In 2003, the Department of Public Instruction said North Carolina’s graduation rate was 97 percent. After this was released, two other publications made national news. In September, Manhattan Institute released a research paper on graduation rates. This paper said North Carolina’s graduation rate was 63 percent. In December, Education Trust released an analysis on the accuracy of graduation rates and said, “North Carolina adopted a definition for the graduation rate that defies reason . . . it has complicated the issue of public reporting by adopting a different definition for its own state report card.”

One would think that graduation rate is a fairly simply concept. However the liberal intellectuals again spin a web of complexity, which truly must come from the “stupidest brilliant people.” Of course the discrepancy lies in formulas. DPI looked at the graduating seniors and asked how many graduated in four years. The Manhattan Institute’s formula is retrospective and uses a cohort of ninth-grade students and determines how many graduated after four years. The Manhattan statistic is what most people automatically think when graduation rate is being discussed, not how many graduating seniors are graduating in four years.

In the executive summary released, DPI recommends the State Board use the Manhattan Institute method for calculating graduation rates in addition to the previous definition that “defies reason.”

If the public trusts the DPI figures, they are in for a rude awaking. Lexington City Schools had the largest discrepancy. DPI reported a 96.7 percent graduation rate, while the Manhattan formula reported a 38.4 percent graduation rate. That’s a 58.3 percent discrepancy, and the bureaucrats wonder why the public is cynical.

DPI reported three systems with a 100 percent graduation rate, but the Manhattan calculation reported Macon County at 73.4, Clay County at 78.7, and Asheboro City Schools at 56.2 percent instead of the “perfect score.” Out of 116 systems reporting a graduation rate, only four were below 93 percent using DPI’s calculation. Weldon City Schools had the lowest DPI score of 87.8 percent; the other calculation for the same system was 47.3 percent. Maybe this explains why some North Carolina counties have such a high illiteracy rate.

Will there ever be a time when reporting to the public will be straightforward? DPI states the reason for reporting the percentage of seniors graduating in four years as the graduation rate is because they did not collect data from ninth grade when the graduating cohort began. DPI states the agency will be able to give a more accurate percentage for the 2005-06 school year.