Low graduation rates a collective challenge
Arizona Republic
May 19, 2008


Author: Sybil Francis

We now know that Arizona isn't graduating as many students as we thought we were.

A little-noticed correction to the Arizona Department of Education's high-school graduation numbers shows a stunning 7 percentage point drop in graduation rates -- from a high of 77 percent in 2004 to 70 percent in 2006 (the most current data publicly available).

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne states that the decline in graduation rates is not really a drop at all but instead reflects improved data collection ("Graduation rates slide dramatically," Arizona Republic, Wednesday).

Indeed, the enactment of SAIS (the state accountability information system), which assigns a unique student identifier to every student, enables the Arizona Department of Education to better track K-12 student data, including graduation rates.

It is certainly good news that the Arizona Department of Education has more accurate graduation rate data. But let's not be too quick to celebrate. In fact, there is cause for alarm.

If we haven't really experienced a drop at all -- but a data correction -- this also means that previous years' data were inflated. In fact, the numbers translate to approximately 4,000 -- 5,000 -- fewer students graduating per year than we thought.

Until recently, Arizona was on track to achieve its 2012 statewide graduation goal of 86 percent. In 2005, under the leadership of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a statewide consensus was reached on an "ambitious but achievable" high-school graduation goal for 2012. The goal was endorsed by education, business and community leaders, including the Arizona Department of Education and the Governor's P-20 Council.

Superintendent Horne 's observation that Arizona students are average is hard to verify because states vary so widely in how they calculate graduation rates. This is why U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently proposed that by 2012 all states be required to use the same method of calculating high-school graduation rates. Arizona is in compliance, but until other states align themselves with this recommendation it is difficult if not impossible to make valid "apples to apples" comparisons with other states.

The newly revised ADE data confirm that low graduation rates affect virtually all ethnic and socioeconomic student populations. In fact, a March 2007 research study "Everybody's Problem: A Closer Look at Arizona's High School Graduation Rate" conducted by the Center for the Future of Arizona found that graduation rates for all of Arizona's ethnic groups, including the majority White population, have trailed those of comparison states. This includes Texas, which shares similar demographics with Arizona and many of the same challenges.

Low graduation rates are not somebody else's problem but our collective challenge. From new families getting established to retirees whose children graduated long ago but whose economic security is dependent on the success of their children's children, our economic well-being relies on a well-educated workforce. Everyone should care about high-school graduation rates whether they have school-age children or not.

Beyond that, we need more students going on to college, a proven way to improve individual and collective economic well-being. Without an educated workforce, we will find ourselves with far too many citizens without jobs that pay a livable wage or support the vital public services upon which we all depend.

We must pull the resources and talents of all sectors together, including business and higher education, to get Arizona's high-school graduation rate back on track. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.

The writer is executive director at the Center for the Future of Arizona. She also chairs the Data and Graduation Rate Committee of the Governor's P-20 Council, which seeks to improve education in Arizona, and prepare students for success in college and in the modern workforce.

Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Opinions
Page: B9
Dateline: AZ
Record Number: pho103027943