Today in the Independent Record: Badly Misleading Information About Graduation Rates


I actually feel like kind of a jerk for writing this post, but today’s story in the Independent Record about graduation rates in Montana is such an effective example of why a local newspaper needs an on-site editor to ensure accurate, quality information gets to the public that I felt compelled to call attention to it.

In the course of discussing how graduation rates in Helena compare to the rest of the state, the piece presented a badly distorted view of our local schools.

Consider the opening:

In Lewis and Clark County the high school dropout rate is 8. 8 percent; the only counties with higher percentages are Big Horn and Roosevelt.

Helena Superintendent Keith Meyer says the dropout rate is about 15 to 18 percent for high schools here.

Although the article never mentions where the 8.8 percent figure comes from, I’m presuming it’s from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count report, which relies on data collected in 2008-09—another detail not mentioned in the story. Unfortunately, the story confuses two statistics, suggesting that Helena’s dropout rate is somehow over twice the dropout rate of Lewis and Clark County, and significantly higher than the rest of the state.

The dropout rate is an annual measure while the number described for Helena measures those who do not complete over a four year period. It’s a common mistake, but it’s a hugely significant one in this piece, entirely distorting the picture of graduation rates here in Helena.

Later, the piece contends that increasing the graduation rate could….uh…increase the graduation rate:

Those are exactly the types of changes communities need to explore, says Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and data at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

If small indicators improve, such as graduation rates, Montana’s overall ranking could improve.

Statistical mistakes, missing details, and nonsensical claims don’t even complete what’s wrong with this story. It’s also a grammatical and syntactical nightmare, featuring everything from modifier errors to incorrect use of the plural form. And if anyone can make heads or tails of the “quotation” from Superintendent Meyer, I would love to get a translation into English:

“There is a certain percentage of students that there seems to be a mobility rate that is leading us to believe it’s one of the red flags we will be watching,” Meyer said.

Finally, a little additional context that would have been helpful in the story? Both Helena High and Capital High had higher graduation rates for last year’s cohorts, as the OPI web page notes.

I’m not writing this to bash the reporter, but as a frustrated reader who believes that local newspapers need actually inform their readers, not distort their understanding of critical issues.

A newsroom is only going to be able to produce as well as it’s supported. Local editing and adequate staffing matter. Helena absolutely needs to increase the percentage of students who graduate, but we can only have productive discussions about improving the graduation rate when we actually understand what’s going on.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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