TIPSHEET: U.Va. Cooper Center Report Explains New Method for Calculating Soon-to-be-Released High School Dropout Rates for Virginia Public Schools

March 16, 2009 — A forthcoming release of dropout rates from Virginia's public schools, to be issued this month by the Department of Education, will likely raise questions, according to researchers from the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service demographics and workforce group.

The new way of calculating the dropout rate, when compared with results of the prior approach, will make the rate appear more than four times higher in 2008 than in years past. However, that is not the case, explains U.Va. demographer Michael Spar.

Spar has written a paper, "Counting Virginia's High School Dropouts: Understanding the New Methods & the Bigger Numbers," published by the Cooper Center this month, to explain the differences in results and the reasons for changing the methods.

"By using this new method, the Virginia Department of Education will be reporting dropout statistics in a way that makes sense to most people — that is, they will answer the question: 'How many students who entered high school in 2004 graduated in 2008?'" Spar said. "The new method also matches those used for calculating the other side of the coin, cohort high school graduation rates, which VDOE released last fall."

The previous method for calculating rates, the single-year method, reported the number of dropouts in one year among the students enrolled in all four high school grades. The cohort method, in contrast, follows one class of students for the four years they are in high school and reports how many drop out (and do not return) over those four years.

Both methods report data accurately, but they report different aspects of the dropout scenario, Spar said, adding that all states now use cohort methods to calculate on-time graduation rates. Using the same method to calculate dropout rates makes the data comparable.