Detroit’s Soaring Graduation Rate Questioned

Published July 1, 2000

According to figures submitted to Michigan’s state Department of Education by Detroit Public Schools officials, Interim Superintendent David Adamany has worked a major miracle during his brief tenure as head of the city’s 167,000-student system.

It would appear Adamany has raised the district’s four-year high school graduation rate from an abysmal 29.8 percent to an outstanding 88.0 percent–significantly higher than the latest reported nationwide high school graduation rate of 74.7 percent for 1998.

For an urban school district, such a dramatic improvement is unprecedented. For a school district that otherwise would be subject to vouchers, the improvement could not have come at a better time.

But hold the champagne, skeptics say, and check the numbers.

The four-year graduation rate has become a very important statistic in Michigan because of the initiative the Kids First! Yes! organization has placed on the November ballot. The initiative calls for a number of education reforms, one of which would give students a voucher to attend a private school if their public school district did not graduate at least two-thirds of its high school students. This 66.7 percent hurdle has prompted Michigan school officials to take a closer look at their graduation rates to make sure they are being computed correctly.

Four-year graduation rates could be artificially depressed, for example, if the calculations failed to exclude freshmen students who were held back a grade, as is permitted under the state’s formula. Earlier this year, Detroit school district officials submitted a revised set of data for the 1996-97 school year, reporting an increase in the number of students held back a grade. When the graduation rate was recomputed from the revised figures, it showed a dramatic improvement, from 29.8 percent to 88.0 percent.

How reliable are the revised data? Detroit Free Press reporters Dawson Bell and Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki have noted some significant inconsistencies in the numbers submitted by the Detroit school district. They point out that Cooley High School, for example, reported holding back more freshmen students than were enrolled in 1998–711 versus 612. Also, based on other data submitted to the state, Detroit schools reported producing 1,163 more graduates than is possible.

But apparently the state Department of Education does not require school districts to submit data that would produce accurate graduation rates, because graduation rate is not a key indicator tracked by the Department.

“They have to submit the numbers,” Education Department spokesperson Brad Wurfel told the Detroit Free Press. But, he cautioned, “The numbers don’t have to be right.”

Voucher advocate Patrick Anderson of Lansing strongly disagrees. A school district’s failure to educate children “shouldn’t be fudged away with bad arithmetic,” he said. For Kids First! Yes! consultant Anita Nelam, the manipulated graduation rate provides yet another reason why children in Detroit should have an alternative to the public schools.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.