Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Get the facts

Dropouts: Kentucky numbers

Truth in numbers is a never-ending quest in education. To that end, a committee of Kentucky lawmakers wants an audit of the state's high school dropout rate after a new state report questions its accuracy.

The Kentucky Department of Education recently reported that nearly 6,000 students - roughly 4 percent - in grades nine through 12 left school last year. That compares with 4.8 percent a year earlier and 5.1 percent in 1999-2000.

The Program Review and Investigations Committee, co-chaired by Northern Kentucky Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, asked the state auditor to investigate whether schools are underreporting Kentucky's dropout numbers.

The issue arose from a 90-page analysis of Kentucky's testing and accountability system, a centerpiece of the state's decade-old Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). The legislative committee requested the report last year amid increasing controversy over the validity and cost of Kentucky's Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS). It grades students on portfolios and tests and rewards schools that reach state-set benchmarks, including dropout rates.

Similar dropout audits in other states such as Texas and New York have shown inflated numbers. (Ohio no longer uses "dropout rate" on its annual report cards, opting instead for "graduation rate" - which for us lay folks has an equally convoluted definition.).

The Kentucky report, from its Legislative Research Commission, said the Bluegrass state does not sufficiently verify dropout counts from schools (tabulated in November) and uses a system that in other states has been found sometimes to underestimate the problem. Kentucky schools now must keep rates below 5.3 percent a year or lose their eligibility for extra state money. By 2006, schools must not exceed a 5 percent dropout rate.

Although Kentucky's statewide reforms often are lauded in education circles, citizens long have raised concerns about whether reported school scores are inflated. Many claim the CATS numbers are not trustworthy, and they're costing taxpayers $21 million a year anyway. The report raises many troublesome questions about CATS. The dropout rates are a good place to start getting answers.

Fight on two fronts
Get the facts
A humbling perspective
Readers' Views