Many disappear from class rolls

This is an X-File that would intrigue even Mulder and Scully: In the past four years, more than 1,000 students have disappeared from the 2007 graduation class of Richmond and Columbia counties.

 

In the 2003-04 school year, there were 4,359 first-time freshmen in the counties' public schools. When school began in August, 1,425 of those students had vanished, according to a yearlong analysis by The Augusta Chronicle.

Where are they?

School officials don't know.

Georgia, like most states, lacks any way to track students, making it difficult to accurately determine who graduates and who drops out. The official rates given each year are merely estimates, and those estimates are flawed, The Chronicle found.

The newspaper obtained school records for each of the past four years and tracked the progress of students through their local school ID numbers.

In one case, a student was listed as a high school freshman at the Academy of Richmond County in 2004. She continued to be listed as a student there until this school year, when she was among the group of students who disappeared.

When presented with the list of student ID numbers, the school system wrote a program to find where they were in their electronic files.

It turns out school records had her transferring this year from Richmond Academy - a high school - to Diamond Lakes Elementary School and then later reclassified her status to "unknown."

Because she was last listed as an elementary school student, if she has dropped out, she won't count against the system's dropout rate.

There were also 92 other discrepancies in which students in the 2003-04 freshman class were later listed as middle school pupils. Most of them were then listed as no longer being in Richmond County schools.

Columbia County Director of Technology Michael Kent refused to attempt to locate the missing students in that county's school system, saying state law doesn't require government agencies to produce nonexistent records.

Questionable student records and graduation rates, consequently, under-report dropout rates. In 2006, the Georgia Department of Education calculated Richmond County's high school dropout rate at 5.8 percent and Columbia County's at 3.8 percent. The state rate was 4.7 percent.

"It's a much larger number for sure, absolutely for sure," Marty Duckenfield, of the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, said of national dropout rates. "Even if these numbers are the true numbers, which they are not, it's a crisis."

The under-reported dropout totals in turn lead to inflated graduation rates, said Chris Swanson, the director of the Education Week Research Center, which researched the issue for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to provide equal access to good education.

"I would argue that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to adequately deal with the (dropout) problem in the absence of accurate information," Dr. Swanson said. "The first step to getting help is admitting you have a problem. Knowledge is power."

He said it's also important to establish a data collection system to look at individual students, although the information entered into a computer is only as reliable as the person doing it.

"Unless the data are collected systematically and accurately at the source in a way that is accountable and verifiable, even data from a student tracking system should be viewed cautiously," Dr. Swanson said.

Georgia Department of Education officials acknowledge the need to track students' progress and are adopting a new monitoring system, but the process is still a couple of years from producing data.

The new system assigns an identifying number that will be unique to all Georgia students so that state officials can follow them from school to school and year to year.

That will allow school systems to calculate their graduation and dropout rates by tracking individual students instead of looking solely at numbers.

For example, if 1,000 students began as freshmen and four years later 1,000 students graduated, the school system will now be able to tell how many of those students were in the original class, how many transferred in, how many transferred out and how many dropped out.

The Chronicle obtained data used internally by Richmond and Columbia counties that the newspaper analyzed to track students within their respective school systems. With this information, The Chronicle was able to determine how many students who were first-time freshmen in 2003-04, are on track to graduate four years later.

The percentage of students on track to get their diploma in the 2007 class is much lower than last year's graduation rate, which, determined through the Georgia Department of Education's formula, was 66.1 percent.

The Chronicle found that 1,275 of the 2,714 students who were freshmen four years ago in Richmond County schools were still on track to graduate when school began in August. That's only 47 percent of the original freshman class.

There is a similar disparity in Columbia County, where the state calculated its graduation rate as 81.2 percent last year. The newspaper's calculations show that 67 percent of the first-time freshmen four years ago were on track to graduate when school began.

Aiken County data weren't made available. The Chronicle made numerous requests by phone and e-mail to both Associate Superintendent for Administration David Mathis and Associate Superintendent of Instruction Cecelia Davidson.

Sankara Sethuraman, an Augusta State University professor of statistics, studied the newspaper's formula and, while noting that it wasn't perfect, said it provided a more accurate picture than the one by the education department. Looking at students in a way such as The Chronicle's formula will always produce more accurate numbers, he said.

"Nobody can say this is wrong," Dr. Sethuraman said, pointing out, though, that the newspaper's analysis doesn't credit students who leave one of the two counties and graduate somewhere else.

Many of the students who are unaccounted for have left the Columbia County school system, said Dr. Lauren Williams, its associate superintendent of student learning.

She said it's inaccurate to say students disappeared because they are documented electronically in computer databases each time they leave the school system.

When a student stops going to school, officials record that in an electronic database along with the reason the student is no longer there, whether that be because of graduation, transfer or a list of reasons that fall under the dropout category.

"I don't believe we truly lose a student," she said.

It could be that a large number of students leave from freshman to senior year, Dr. Williams said.

Augusta also has a high student transiency rate, said Dr. Carol Rountree, the director of guidance and research for Richmond County schools. But most school systems will say that, she added.

If these students are transferring to other high schools in Georgia, statewide enrollment numbers don't bear that out.

There are nearly 40,000 fewer high school seniors this year than there were freshmen four years ago, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

An analysis by The Chronicle found that only 23 of 385 schools in Georgia saw increases in their graduating class of 2007 from freshman to senior year.

Mrs. Duckenfield said paperwork often can't keep up with students who transfer every few months. Those students are on target to be dropouts.

Some dropouts go unnoticed and fade away from the classroom, and others are pushed out, she said. A stronger computerized system is needed to better understand the scope of the problem.

The Chronicle's approach of tracking individual students is more in line with what states are moving toward.

"What you have done is how it will be done in Georgia in the future," Dr. Sethuraman said.

To catch a glimpse of the future, look no further than Indianapolis.

Indianapolis high schools had a graduation rate of more than 90 percent in six consecutive years before the state changed its calculation formula last year. Under the new formula, which tracks individual students, the graduation rate plummeted to 52 percent in 2006.

Indianapolis Public Schools have been aware of the dropout problem, and the state's new formula also has made the community aware, spokeswoman Mary Louise Bewley said.

The new focus on dropouts has been ushered in by No Child Left Behind. The Bush administration's sweeping education reform legislation was implemented to bring accountability to schools and ensure students meet basic educational standards.

"I think there are a lot of quiet dropouts who are going through painful things," Mrs. Duckenfield said. "There's definitely a huge problem."

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

DROPOUTS IN AUGUSTA

A two-part series on the problems faced by dropouts in the CSRA, and efforts to solve the problem.

Sunday, May 27

- Dropout discusses life without school

- Illness ends woman's pursuit for diploma

- Many disappear from class rolls

- Dropping out often leads to prison time

Monday, May 28

- 59-year-old is back in the classroom

- Exit exams can spoil graduation

CLASS OF 2007

Many first-year students aren't part of their school's senior class four years later. Some drop out, some transfer to other schools, and the location of others is not known.

A school-by-school look at the percentage of seniors who are on schedule to graduate from the school where they began as freshmen in 2003-04:

School:2003-04 FreshmenClass of 2007Graduation Rate
A.R. Johnson
Health Science and
Engineering Magnet
1237359.3
Academy of
Richmond County
53315328.7
Butler42810925.5
Cross Creek42813431.3
John S. Davidson
Fine Arts Magnet
968689.6
Glenn Hills46714230.4
Hephzibah44317639.7
Laney2596525.1
Josey3639726.7
Westside28911339.1
Evans43427062.2
Greenbrier48134972.6
Harlem29717860.0
Lakeside43327864.2

WHERE ARE THEY?

Many students aren't counted in graduation rates because they fail to graduate "on time" or simply disappear from student rolls. The Augusta Chronicle tracked the four-year progress of the 2003-04 freshman class in Richmond and Columbia counties:

RICHMOND COUNTY

On the first day of school in 2003:

2,714 students were first- time freshmen.

On the first day of school in 2004:

1,756 of those students were sophomores and on track to graduate on time (64.7 percent).

483 were freshmen

7 were juniors

0 were seniors

468 were no longer in any Richmond County high school

On the first day of school in 2005:

1,440 were juniors and on track to graduate on time (53.1 percent).

397 were sophomores

98 were freshmen

6 were seniors

773 were no longer in any Richmond County high school

On the first day of school in 2006:

1,275 were seniors and on track to graduate on time (47 percent).

328 were juniors

83 were sophomores

9 were freshmen

1,019 were no longer in any Richmond County high school

COLUMBIA COUNTY

On the first day of school in 2003:

1,645 students were first- time freshmen.

On the first day of school in 2004:

1,316 of those students were sophomores and on time to graduate (80 percent).

206 were freshmen

0 were juniors

0 were seniors

123 were no longer in any Columbia County high school

On the first day of school in 2005:

1,227 were juniors and on track to graduate on time (74.6 percent).

139 were sophomores

18 were freshmen

1 was a senior

260 were no longer in any Columbia County high school

On the first day of school in 2006:

1,101 were seniors and on track to graduate on time (66.9 percent).

129 were juniors

8 were sophomores

1 was a freshman

406 were no longer in any Columbia County high school

Source: The Augusta Chronicle analysis of data provided by board of educations in Richmond and Columbia counties

BY THE NUMBERS

Dropout statistics collected by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C. education policy and research group:

- Only 70 percent of all students in public high schools graduate, and only 32 percent of all students leave high school qualified to attend four-year colleges.

- Students from historically disadvantaged minority groups have barely a 50 percent chance of finishing high school with a diploma.

- The U.S. Department of Education permits states to report graduation rates based solely on 12th-graders, ignoring students who drop out in the ninth, 10th, or 11th grades.

- The National Center for Education Statistics overstates the national high school completion rate at 86.5 percent, a misleading figure because it includes both GED recipients and high school graduates.

- The U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey overestimates nationwide graduation rates because it excludes people who are incarcerated. Since dropouts are overrepresented among prisoners, this inflates the graduation rate. This bias is more severe for ethnic or racial groups that have a disproportionate number of young people in prison.

- A 1 percent increase in high school graduation rates is projected to save approximately $1.4 billion associated with incarceration costs.

Source: Alliance for Excellent Education

WHY ARE THEY DROPPING OUT?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a study that surveyed high school dropouts. The following percentages of dropouts identified these issues as major factors in why they quit school:

47: Classes were not interesting

43: Missed too many days and could not catch up

42: Spent time with people who were not interested in school

38: Had too much freedom and not enough rules in my life

35: Was failing in school

WHAT WOULD KEEP THEM IN?

The following percentage of dropouts favored these concepts as a means for improving students' chances of staying in school:

81: Opportunities for real-world learning to make classes more relevant

81: Better teachers who keep classes interesting

75: Smaller classes with more individual instruction

71: Better communication between parents and schools, and more parental involvement

70: Increased supervision at school to ensure students attend classes

Source: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation