In December 2004 the Seattle Post Intelligencer ran an article titled “State slips behind in school spending” subtitled “Administrators release study, call for Legislature to act.” In previous articles we examined two of the statistics quoted in that article, specifically, class size and per-student spending. The big problem of the originally quoted statistics was that it merely compared them to similar statistics from other states. When we examined these statistics we looked at similar statistics from all the states. But state-by-state comparisons only go so far; we also examined what the ideal should be and how Washington state fares in comparison to the ideal. In this final article in the series we’ll examine the state’s school education system not by comparing how much money was spend or by how large the classes are, but by how well they are performing. Specifically, what their graduation rate is.
The implication in these statistics, large class size and low per student spending, is they adversely affect the students’ education, but is this the case? What was missing from the original newspaper article (and indeed in many discussions on this topic) is an objective measure of effectiveness. How do we know that our children are getting a good education? Are we solely relying on class size and spending? “My child is getting an excellent education because there are only 9 other children in his class”, “My child is getting an excellent education because my state is spending $13,000 per year on her education.” These aren’t metrics for performance, if anything they’re metrics for effort. What we’re really interested in is whether that effort is effective.
One such metric is graduation rate. If you have small class sizes and spend lots of money on your students you’d hope that almost all of your students would graduate. Or, in our case, despite having the fifth largest class size and below average spending per student, Washington’s high school graduation rate is slightly ahead of the national average.
It seems as if Washington is doing the best in a bad situation; above average graduation rate despite below average class size and below average per student spending. But the cited statistic is that the national average graduation rate is 69.7%. Are we really satisfied with this number?
Surprisingly that’s harder to say and a full answer to this is beyond the scope of this series. One complicating factor is that it is hard to find any 2 reports that will agree on what the graduation rate is. If no one moved or changed schools then determining how many 9th graders actually completed 12th grade would be fairly easy, but people move so statistical methods are used to account for this, but those methods don’t agree on how to handle students who are held back a grade. Some will capture them while others will treat them as drop outs, even if they graduate from high school in 5 years instead of 4. Because of this, I’ve adopted the policy of treating graduation rates as a relative measure; those near the national average are good, those well above it are excellent and those well below it are poor. Washington state’s graduation rate is good despite having a significantly larger than normal class size.
But before we leave this, let’s briefly consider one final assumption, that is, whether there should be a correlation between class size, per-student spending and graduation rate. On the surface it seems plausible, but if you dig deeper into the data you’ll find the state of Utah is a remarkable state. It ranks last in spending per student but 2nd in graduation rate for the 2004 academic year.
Seattle Post Intelligencer article available online at: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/204608_schoolfunding21.html
Spending per student and class size information was obtained from the National Education Association’s reports:
National Education Association, “Rankings & Estimates, Rankings of the States 2004 and Estimates of School Statistics 2005”, June 2005. Available at: http://www.nea.org/edstats/images/05rankings.pdf
National Education Association, “Rankings & Estimates, A Report of School Statistics UPDATE”, Fall 2005. Available at: http://www.nea.org/edstats/images/05rankings-update.pdf
A study that recommends a class size of 13 to 17 students is:
American Educational Research Association, “Class Size: Counting Students Can Count”, Fall 2003 Research Points. Available at: http://www.aera.net/uploadedFiles/Journals_and_Publications/Research_Points/RP_Fall03.pdf
High School graduation rate information came from:
NCHEMS Information Center for State Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis, “Public High School Graduation Rates” for year 2004. Available at: http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/index.php?measure=23