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Detroit Schools Graduation Rate: 32%

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Karen Bouffard, The Detroit News, February 25, 2008

Just 31.9 percent of Detroit students graduate in four years, according to the first major study in Michigan conducted using a method now mandated by the federal government.

The study, by the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, looked at how many ninth-graders in Detroit and the state as a whole left high school with diplomas after four years. It portends what may happen in August, when Michigan releases the graduation rate for the class of 2007, which will be calculated for the first time using the same formula used by MSU researchers.

Detroit Public Schools officials would not comment on the study, which has not yet been published, but School Board President Carla Scott said she doesn't believe the results, which echo the findings of an Education Week study released in June. That study found fewer than a quarter of ninth-graders who entered Detroit Public Schools in 1999 graduated four years later.

According to the state Department of Education, the district's graduation rate for the same time frame was 66.8 percent.

"It doesn't seem credible to me," Scott said. "You can make data for anything you want it to say, but (they) should have factored in the reasons why they left.

"If you look at children moving out of the city, of course you're going to see a decrease. There are all kinds of reasons why children leave the city, that doesn't mean they're dropouts."

Statewide, the new study found the graduation rate in 2006 -- 72.9 percent -- was significantly lower than the state Department of Education's 85.7 percent graduation rate for the class of 2006, the last year for which data is available.

Sharif Shakrani, director of the Education Policy Center at MSU and the author of the study, said researchers looked at the total number of freshmen in Detroit Public Schools in fall 2002 and then in each subsequent year through June 2006.

They took into account the number who moved to charter schools or to other districts in the state, where records were available.

There was no way to determine how many of the children moved out of state or transferred to private schools without a uniform identification system to track students, Shakrani said. It also didn't take into account students who graduate in five years.

Eight states already have such a system, which is under development in Michigan.

The study found an even lower graduation rate for boys enrolled in Detroit Public Schools: just 25 percent, compared with 39 percent of girls -- a discrepancy that mirrors national trends.

Jack Jennings, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, said large urban areas across the country have reported "shockingly low" graduation rates when calculated with the method used by MSU researchers. The counting method, called cohort, is required under No Child Left Behind.

"What you're seeing in Detroit is the same type of thing you're seeing in Chicago, (Los Angeles), Houston and all big cities," Jennings said. "If the general finding is that the graduation rate in inner city schools isn't very high, they're correct -- and it's something to be legitimately concerned about. It's a warning sign that maybe the situation is worse than we thought, and maybe we should do something about it."

Leslee Fritz, spokeswoman for the state Budget Office, Center for Educational Performance Initiatives, which collects and maintains all education-related data in the state, said the cohort method is more accurate than the method previously used in Michigan because it accounts for students who may have left the state's public schools before their senior year.

Up until this year, the state calculated the rate by comparing the number of seniors in the fall to the number that graduate the following June.

"We agree that the four-year-cohort figure will be a more accurate measure because it will give you a better sense of how many drop out throughout the four years, rather than just at the end of it," Fritz said.
"This will be the first year we look at the number who enter as freshmen, and the number who graduate four years later," Fritz said. "Certainly, we've said that the expectation is that when you take that wider four-year view a number of districts will show a lower rate, and that the statewide graduation will go down as a result."

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed increasing the dropout age to 18 and creating smaller high schools to boost graduation rates.

"Governor Granholm recognizes that we must provide a quality education for every child and provide them with the tools they need to be successful in the 21st century," Liz Boyd, Granholm's press secretary, said in a statement.

"She has called on education leaders and lawmakers from both parties to join her in solving the dropout problem."

State Department of Education spokeswoman Jan Ellis said Michigan this year began assigning identity codes to students, which will eventually be used to track them as they move through the educational system and on into college. But coordinating such a system with colleges will take time, she said.
Still, MSU's Shakrani believes the data from his study is the most accurate to date for quantifying the scope of the dropout problem in Detroit and statewide.

Shakrani's study found that students are most likely to graduate once they start their senior year. Students have the highest likelihood of dropping out between ninth and 10th grade.

"The implication is that we need to be able to predict which students have a potential to drop out and try to do something about it early," Shakrani said.

"When we see students aren't interested in school, the reason most likely is because the instruction is above their heads, so we need to improve their education at the middle school level.

"We need to make sure that the educational system is aware of the potential dropouts and to see what we can do to prevent them from dropping out."

You can reach Karen Bouffard at (734) 462-2206 or


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