Friday, September 11, 2009

While Numbers Are Important, Children Matter Most

As I was reviewing materials for my first interview with the Kentucky Board of Education, one of the things to impress me about Kentucky was the state graduation rate. Graduation rate is the ultimate measure of our success as a state education system. The school board and community in my previous position had made graduation rate the key strategic goal. The graduation rate in my previous position had improved from one of the lowest in the state (below 60 percent) to one of the top ten in the state (81 percent). Also, the gaps between different student groups had been reduced to single digits.

While I was impressed with the Kentucky graduation rate of more than 83 percent, I did learn that Kentucky had not yet reported the NCLB four-year graduation rate due to technical issues. We are scheduled to report this data with this year’s entering freshman class when that group graduates in 2013.

Upon digging into the data, I learned that Kentucky had more than 6,500 students drop out of school in the 2007-08 school year. These numbers reflect real children and reflect a real concern for the economic, social, moral and civil rights impact that high school dropouts will have on our Commonwealth.

Thanks to First Lady Jane Beshear, we are going to focus on this issue in Kentucky. While we have made good progress in improving the number of high school graduates, we cannot accept 6,500 students dropping out of school. Beginning with the Graduation Summit this weekend and the Graduate Kentucky efforts that will follow, I am certain local communities and schools will rally around the goal of reducing dropout numbers and increasing graduation rates.

There are some that will focus on the numbers and debate the accuracy of those numbers. We do need to ensure we are reporting accurately; however, we need to focus on the children and what we as adults can do to help more children graduate from high school and be prepared for postsecondary work.

The biggest challenge to overcome is the excuse that some children cannot learn due to their economic and social conditions. We must raise our expectations for all children to be successful, and we must focus our schools and classrooms on what the children need rather than what the adults may prefer. This is difficult work; however, it is work we must do to ensure a future for our community, our state and our nation.

There are schools all over Kentucky that are defying the odds and helping more children learn. I recently visited Calloway County High School, where the principal and staff make student involvement and success the number-one priority. The dropout rate there is well below state and national averages.

There are many other schools that are doing this kind of great work. Let’s share our best practices with each other, work together to lower the dropout rates in all of our schools and send forward high school graduates who are ready to lead and solve the problems that we have left behind.


  1. Dr. Holliday,

    I salute your keen interest in improving Kentucky’s graduation rates, especially since the official numbers you quote in your blog undoubtedly understate the true dimensions of this very serious problem.

    As you are new to the state, you probably are not aware that the process currently used to generate Kentucky’s dropout and graduation rate statistics was officially audited by the Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts in October of 2006. The auditor found that the state was significantly under-reporting dropouts. Furthermore, because our current graduation formula is critically dependent upon those inaccurate dropout figures, our official graduation rates are also untrustworthy. As the state’s commissioner of education, I encourage you to read this official audit and carefully consider its implications. You can find the audit on line here:

    As you point out, we won’t get high accuracy data until Kentucky can fully implement the National Governors’ Association’s graduation rate compact formula, probably not until 2013 (assuming we get the kinks worked out of the Infinite Campus student tracking software).

    However, we could move to a much better approximation formula right now, one that has been thoroughly researched by the US Department of Education in several states that had high accuracy numbers for comparison. That formula is called the “Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate” (AFGR).

    Actually, KDE announced in the latest Nonacademic Data release that we will move to the AFGR in 2011, but I don’t see any reasonable excuse not to make the change this year. In fact, with the state assessment in rebuilding mode, moving to the AFGR now would give us a trend line and some consistent data to work with once the new assessment is up and running. I think we have the data now to retroactively calculate the AFGR back to the Class of 2003.

    As a data-oriented individual, I know you understand that inaccurate data can be worse than no data. It can act to mute a sense of urgency. Moving to the AFGR now is the right move, and it will send a message that your office and the state board are serious about attacking Kentucky’s graduation rate problem.

  2. Dr. Holliday, I urge you to check out Buckner Alternative High School in Oldham County, with an amazing track record of helping potential drop-outs find the way to succeed. The staff is singular in their dedication to reaching every child. Thank you for looking for ways to help all of Kentucky's children.

  3. Jan, thanks very much for the invitation. I am planning a number of school visits in the weeks to come, and BAHS is one that I will try to schedule soon.