"In our district, every four years we lose 45 percent of our students, Mr. Chairman," Western Heights (Okla.) Public Schools superintendent Joe Kitchens testified in April before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor hearing entitled "How Data Can Be Used to Inform Educational Outcomes." "We have to do something about this. We have to retool America's schools to deal with this issue of mobility," he urged the committee. Over the past five years, Kitchens and the administration of Western Heights have done just that.
Recalculating with EACGI
By 2005, the administration of the 3,000-student Oklahoma district had begun to suspect that the official dropout rate estimated by the state was inaccurately low, and the official graduation rate inaccurately high. "So we asked the U.S. Department of Education if there was a better formula for calculating these rates," says Kitchens, "and they encouraged us to use the Exclusion-Adjusted Cohort Graduation Indicator (EACGI)." A highly complex formula for calculating high school dropout and graduation rates, the EACGI is recommended by both the Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics as most accurate.
The formula is "cohort-based," grouping students together as a ninth-grade class and following them through a four year period, while taking all possible changes in student status into account, most importantly transfers in or out, a particular problem at Western Heights. "Dealing with the unbelievably high rates of student mobility at all levels is one of our greatest challenges," says Lisa McLaughlin, assistant superintendent.
After spending nearly two years developing new routines and implementing a new data management system from Mizuni built on Microsoft's Education Analytics Platform, Western Heights became the first district in Oklahoma to use a cohort-based reporting system. The initial results weren't cause for celebration, however: The recalculated 2006-2007 graduation rate was 65 percent, nearly 25 percent lower than previously quoted, and the new dropout rate much higher, at nearly 35 percent. "The data were undeniable," says Kitchens, "and demanded our full-fledged attention." Mobile students in particular were the most at risk. "We saw that mobile students dropped out and failed classes at nearly twice the rate of non-mobile students," says Kitchens.
The new data analysis system enabled administrators to take focused action. "With the identification established we began to look at data trends to determine why these students dropped out, and establish effective intervention strategies," says Kitchens. Using federal stimulus funds, the district increased the number of counselors and graduation coaches available to at-risk students. Additional stimulus funds also enabled Western Heights, in partnership with the state Department of Human Services, to provide a family counselor to work with the families of students identified as being at risk of dropping out. Formal partnerships with a local community college and career center have also enabled the district to reach out to and motivate its mobile students.
"Our dropout rate has decreased by one third in the past four years, and with the 2011 cohort of graduates it is very possible that the rate will decrease by 50 percent or more from 2007 levels," says Kitcens. "I believe all of our nation's schools must begin to develop effective strategies to combat the adverse impacts of student mobility," says Kitchens. "It is quite possibly the challenge of our time."
Kurt Eisele-Dyrli is products editor.