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Graduation ‘miracle’? Don’t don party hats yet

I’ve been playing DropOut, the hot new game. I don’t stand a chance.

The DropOut ProAm

Being an amateur, I used common sense, dividing the number of Tacoma high school graduates in June 2014 (1,464) by the number of ninth-graders in October 2010 (2,678). This yielded a graduation rate of 55 percent.

A graduation rate of 55 percent means Tacoma lost almost half the students who started high school. It’s not a winning score.

Professionals don’t play this way. They use special rules to exclude a lot of ninth-graders from the calculation. The graduation rate goes up and the party starts.

The ‘Tacoma Miracle’

Remember the “Texas Miracle?” George W. Bush claimed nobody dropped out of Houston high schools. Later, however, Houston had a problem. Turned out principals miscoded thousands of

dropouts so it looked like they left the country or started college early rather than dropping out of school.

Yes, mistakes were made, but the principals were on to something. If a school district somehow can “lose” dropouts and the students who won’t graduate on time, graduation rates will dramatically improve. It’s like saying, “ignore the cake I had at lunch; I only ate vegetables today.”

Let us eat cake

I’m afraid that’s how Tacoma achieved a 78 percent graduation rate for the Class of 2014. Instead of counting all the kids who were in ninth grade in 2010, Tacoma somehow “lost” 808 of them. Instead of a “cohort” of 2,678, Tacoma has decided the number was actually 1,870. That provides a graduation rate of 78 percent. Which still means one in five kids doesn’t make it, but it beats my 55 percent.

So where are those lost boys and girls? Some transferred to other school districts. Some started college early or joined the military. And some took advantage of a new state law that authorizes “re-engagement centers.”

Ah, yes, an enchanted place, where potential and current dropouts find an “alternative learning environment” – and are taken off the books.

You may recall school staff raising this issue in September. They said their school was “forcing” students into the re-engagement center to improve graduation rates. The district investigated, and found the school broke no rules. The staff members were disciplined for disclosing confidential information.

… Doth protest too little

Look, I know dozens of teachers and administrators in Tacoma schools. They work hard and care about kids. A lot. This is not about blame.

But it feels like we’re shouting “Miracle!” in a troubled school district. Like we’re blowing statistical smoke to make it seem we’re winning when in the real world – where kids struggle, where parents worry, where employers despair – we still lose.

I want to help. But I don’t think it’s helpful to cheer the emperor’s new clothes. I wish education leaders would trust the community enough to be clear about what’s happening, rather than parading through town soliciting applause.

Yeah they got their picture in the paper, but it’s not a pretty sight.

Ken Miller has lived in Tacoma since 1970. He's served on the Board of the Tacoma Housing Authority and on the 2014 Charter Review Committee, among other civic activities.

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