Thursday, August 02, 2007

My fall classes begin on August 28, and I have a long list of things to do, especially because I am changing books in my classes, so that will involve a lot more revisions than usual. Plus, my summer class ends August 17, so very soon there will be some things to do to wrap up that course.

But instead, I was enticed by this Daily Freeman article to do a little data analysis. I'd read about this Forbes magazine article recently, but didn't look at it that carefully. However, when I noticed that it listed Ulster County's schools (home of my alma mater and weekend house) as third worst in the nation (of the 100 counties they ranked), I couldn't resist! I'm not sure why they chose Ulster County as one of the places to include - perhaps because it is a weekend vacation spot for NYC folks, and they resent the high school taxes they pay on their second homes, or because some of them consider abandoning the metro area and making the move north permanently.

So I tossed my to do list aside (temporarily) and visited the NYS Education Department's school report cards website. I don't feel too guilty, because it is sort of work-related!

Now, Forbes is refusing to give any more details on what formula they used than what is already provided in the article. So naturally, that makes it hard. Hiding the methodology isn't the scholarly way. But then Forbes is hardly a scholarly publication. However, valid or not, such articles do get attention, and so I can sympathize with the school representatives quoted in the Freeman article, that it is an unfair analysis. On the other hand, I have written before (here, here, here, and here) about how the numbers simply don't add up in the district that is my alma mater, so I was willing to give Forbes the benefit of the doubt.

In addition to Forbes' stonewalling on how they figured this out, NYSED changed the format of the report card publications from 2005 to 2006, which makes it very difficult to locate the data. But it still is possible to wade through the reports, do a little number crunching, and compare it to the chart in Forbes. They used four measures: per pupil spending for fiscal year 2004, mean SAT or ACT (whichever is the most common in the state) scores for 2005, participation rate on the SAT or ACT for 2005, and graduation rate for 2005.

In New York, the SAT is the college entrance exam usually taken. I'm not sure how Forbes got the details for the SAT down to the county level. Maybe the College Board is willing to share that information, or maybe individual schools are. For Ulster County, Forbes lists 1,032 as the mean score in 2005, with a participation rate of 62.10%. The only data I could easily access was the statewide average score, and for New York, that was 1,008.

Forbes lists per pupil spending in fiscal year 2004 as $12,482 for Ulster County. They note that this has been adjusted for local cost of living, although no additional information is provided. Ulster County is made up of 10 districts. Assuming by fiscal year 2004 they mean 2004-05, the total per pupil expenditures ranged from a high of $18,543 (for Onteora) to a low of $12,336 (for Saugerties), with an average of $15,794. So I am not sure where Forbes' numbers came from. The NYSED data actually makes the county look even more costly.

The graduation rate was 83.6% for the class of 2005, according to Forbes. That would mean a dropout rate of 16.4%. The data from SED does not support this, although the numbers listed are inconsistent from year to year and so it is not very illuminating. When I consulted the report card data published in the 2005 report, it was different than what was listed for the prior year in the 2006 report. The 2005 report has dropouts ranging from 10.9% (for Kingston) to 1.9% (for Walkill), with an average of 5%, which is terrible in my opinion, although better all around than what Forbes claims. The 2006 report lists the dropout rate for 2005 as ranging from 15% (for Rondout Valley) to 1% (for Walkill), with an average of 5.9%; that's even worse, but not as bad as the number Forbes published.

Then, when I do my own calculations based on the 2005 numbers from SED for 12th grade enrollment and graduates rather than accepting the proportions listed for dropout rate, I wind up with graduation rates that range from 94.3% (for Marlboro) to 81.4% (for Saugerties), and a County average of 88.2%; it's not the same as the dropout rates published by SED, and it still doesn't match the data in Forbes!

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