Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: The insidious little lie about drop-out rates, part 3

THINK OF THIS as a teachable moment.

Shortly after my column ran explaining that South Carolina's on-time high school graduation rate is much higher than the 50 percent range that critics try to brainwash us into believing, the spokesman for the private school "choice" group SCRG submitted an op-ed that, essentially, criticized me for not using the bogus graduation numbers that I spent the entire column discrediting. Only he didn't put it that way; he made it sound as though his figures were numbers I had simply omitted. The term "cherry-picking" was included.

Combine that central flaw with the fact that the column accused me of positions that I have not taken and implicitly accused me of not taking positions that I have taken, and you're left with a piece that, edited to not be horribly misleading, doesn't make much sense. Normally, I would simply reject something like that, even though I give a strong preference to columns that disagree with our positions, and a stronger preference still to those that take direct issue with something I personally have written.

But since one of the major goals of my earlier column was to shed light on the whole brainwashing operation, this seemed like a good opportunity to illustrate the tactics that are used.

The column by Neil Mellen appears here. Because most of the claims are not technically incorrect, it is printed largely as submitted. The one exception is a paragraph near the end, where he lumped me in with the "public school bureaucracy" as working to "persuade parents and taxpayers to perpetually stay the course on the hope that public schools will improve" through the expenditure of "ever more money." I couldn't leave such a demonstrably untrue claim in the column, so I removed my name, which is why the column seems so abrupt when it returns to me two paragraphs later.

What makes it impossible to just edit out the problem parts of the column is the claim, central to the entire piece, that the U.S. Department of Education "counted 33,439 diplomas issued by South Carolina to a class of students that began with 64,027 freshmen four years earlier. That's just 52 percent."

That is technically correct - and astoundingly misleading.

That 64,027 includes not just first-time freshmen but also those students who had started out as freshmen the previous year, but flunked too many courses as ninth-graders to be considered 10th-graders. Those students already are being counted against the on-time graduation rate of the previous year's freshman class; the number Mr. Mellen chose to use double-counts them.

If instead you use the "first-time freshmen" category (which is listed just two columns over in the chart that provides the other figure), you get an on-time graduation rate that is not 52 percent but 60 percent.

Comparing the number of first-time freshmen to the number of graduates four years later is not the best way to derive an on-time graduation rate: It doesn't account for students who leave the state or transfer to private schools, and it is an estimate, not a solid figure. But it's a perfectly respectable methodology that few people will criticize other than to say there is a better way. Mr. Mellen, however, chose to use that other figure instead.

Mr. Mellen implies (but does not actually say) that the 52 percent figure was provided by the U.S. Education Department. It was not. It is a figure derived from the agency's figures.

This might sound like a too-technical technicality, but it's an important point because of the why. The reason you won't find Mr. Mellen's percentage in any of the federal agency's charts is that the agency has rejected this methodology as misleading, incomplete, you name it.

In fact, while the agency does calculate graduation rates using the first-time freshmen figures, President Bush's education secretary last year ordered every state in the nation to use a different method for the purpose of measuring progress under No Child Left Behind. That method is the one that South Carolina and a handful of other states use: actually tracking the individual students from 9th grade until they leave the public schools. That methodology produces a 75 percent on-time graduation rate for 2008, the most recent year available. (Mr. Mellen's figures are from the 2005 graduating class.)

There are other problems with the column, such as the laughable implication that I am not concerned about the achievement gap - the jargonistic term for the fact that poor kids, particularly those in the poorest communities, do far worse than better-off kids, particularly those in the most affluent communities.

Not only has the achievement gap been the central educational concern of this editorial board since before I joined it in 1997, but it also drives our main objection to Mr. Mellen's proposal to throw money at private schools: Contrary to the rhetoric, the actual legislation that has been pushed year in and year out does absolutely nothing to help poor kids.

The only way they will benefit from the tax credit legislation being pushed by Mr. Mellen's group and others is if 1) the magic of the market somehow works to draw top-notch schools to the communities that can't even attract a Food Lion and 2) complete strangers donate money to a "scholarship-granting organization," in return for an income tax credit, to pay their tuition to that mythological good private school and 3) the good private school actually admits those kids and 4) their parents have the wherewithal to get them to and from school.

What's so amazing is that Mr. Mellen and his allies feel the need to keep using these misleading, count-the-failures-twice numbers to sell this plan. I mean, having a third, or even a quarter, of your students fail to graduate on time is completely unacceptable. It demands action.

But numbers that paint a disturbingly accurate picture of the situation just aren't shocking enough to move us from "fix the schools" to "abandon the schools," and so those who prefer the latter must come up with even more disturbing numbers, whether they bear any resemblance to reality or not.

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