Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Washington in bottom third in on-time high school grad rates

by Matt Rosenberg November 30th, 2012

New rankings that the U.S. Department of Education says are for the first time solidly comparable between states, show that in the 2010-2011 school year Washington ranked in the bottom third nationally in its rate of on-time high school graduation, within four years of 9th grade. Washington was tied with several other states for the 14th lowest rate, of 76 percent, out of 47 states plus the District of Columbia and the nationwide Bureau of Indian Education, for which data were available. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement, “By using this new measure, states will be more honest in holding schools accountable and ensuring that students succeed. Ultimately, these data will help states target support to ensure more students graduate on time, college and career ready.” Making increased K-12 spending effective is certainly an issue in Washington, one which independent state policy analysts continue to probe.

Some public school supporters here, and the state’s Supreme Court in its McCleary ruling, believe that for the quality of K-12 public education to improve more funding is needed. Observers say the high court ruling could necessitate as much as 20 percent more from the state. A court-ordered commission will recommend options by year’s end and some legislative leaders expect to seek voter approval next fall of new taxes for that purpose.

But an equally vital question will be how best to spend the new K-12 money the court says is required for the legislature to meet its constitutional duty to robustly support public education. A report last month from the Washington State Institute For Public Policy (WSIPP) reviewed several dozen rigorously conducted studies across the nation and found that K-12 spending increases of 10 percent overall had only very modest positive effects on drop-out and high school graduation rates, and standardized test scores – ranging from three quarters of a percent annually in early years down to nearly zero and then zero percent in boosted outcomes from 9th through 12th grade.

However researchers at state-funded WSIPP say they hope to determine if increased spending on certain educational approaches yield more bang for buck than others, in terms of key outcomes such as test scores and high school graduation rates. These might include, as we reported last month, “smaller class sizes, all-day kindergarten, longer school days and longer school years, enhanced early childhood education, ramped up programs to recruit, hire and retain especially talented teachers, and more and better after-school programs.”

Only 14 jurisdictions out of 49 reporting scored worse than Washington in the new national rankings. They were Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia, the Bureau of Indian Education, Florida, Georgia, Lousiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and South Carolina. Several others were tied with the Evergreen State at 76 percent.

Within Washington in 2010-2011, four-year high school graduation rates were 57 percent for Native Americans, 81 percent for Asians, 65 percent for African-Americans, 63 percent for Hispanics, 73 percent for multi-racial students and 79 percent for whites.

The new data from the feds comes with some extra food for thought. Though Washington has a relatively low national ranking for high school graduation rates in 2010-2011, it ranks above average in some major academic performance risk factors, across the K-12 spectrum, according to a profile of the state at the Education Department’s eddataexpress site. It has eight percent fewer low-income students in K-12 public schools than the U.S. as a whole; four percent fewer with limited English language proficiency; and one percent fewer with disabilities.

The state profile also shows that on average, in 2004-05 through 2010-11 Grade 4 math and Grade 8 math and reading scores in the benchmark National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, Washington state public school students rank slightly ahead of the nation as a whole.

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