JEFF MEADORS: The numbers don't lie

Numbers matter. Boards hold CEOs accountable in the real world when shareholders grumble over numbers.

Numbers are everywhere: Body mass index, polls, fund balances, AGI, IPO, P/E ratio, height, weight, RBI, ITBS, graduation rates, life expectancy, Nielsen ratings, and full retirement age.

Numbers get shaped, contorted, edited, leaked, refreshed, amended, updated, embargoed, and even lost. But to stakeholders excuses, dial backs and explanations of erroneous outcomes lack traction. There is no column for annotation in publicly released data reports to explain who dropped the ball and why.

My ears have burned since the publication of Newton’s 2013 graduation rates.

The public is unsympathetic with mediocre productivity in public schools as more and more tax dollars fill the coffers of public systems. Despite rants and shrieks to the contrary, funding to public education in the U.S. exceeds most industrialized countries, has multiplied by seven to nine times since World War I, and has more than doubled since the 1980s while student achievement has neither doubled nor multiplied by seven to nine. On average it has been flat for decades. Disciples for more public money for schools forget flat to flagging achievement when their hands are out.

The U.S. Department of Education requires states to calculate cohort graduation rates. Gathering data on graduation is complicated by the absence of a federal student tracking number, but that does not excuse sloppy books.

These rates characterize communities and impact newcomers, home sales, tax digests and morale. Graduation rates chock full of errors and omissions at any given school reduce the overall graduation rate of a county.

From Charleston through the heartland to Las Vegas national reports on crime link low graduation rates to high crime. If the cohort graduation rate is one annual number used to reflect the annual progress of school systems, then schools must work diligently to report numbers reflective of the truth, and accountability measures at school and system levels must be in place to provide correction.

Newton County had a 2013 cohort class size of 1,354 students of which 965 can be accounted for through data collection generating a system graduation rate of 71.3 percent. For 389 students we know nothing about where they are today except that 43.7 percent of the 389 started high school at Newton High.

Does instruction within a single system vary so much that double digit shifts are the norm?

In 2012 Alcovy High produced a 10-point drop in SAT critical reading and a 12-point decline in SAT math from fiscal year 2011 falling below county, state and national averages. Newton High’s current graduation rate dipped 16 percent from the prior year with Alcovy flat lining at 74.1 and a 1.4 percent increase at Eastside High to 88.1 percent.

So what became lost in the errors, omissions and justifications? Some really good news about one school.

Eastside High improved an already admirable graduation rate by 1.4 percent to outperform every high school in Butts, Cherokee, Douglas, Jasper, Morgan, Newton, Putnam, Rockdale, and Walton counties including Social Circle City. Eastside outperformed all of Gwinnett’s 23 high schools with the exception of three and dwarfed the state average of 71.5 by 16.6 percentage points — an accomplishment buried, hidden from view.

When celebrations of substantive school success lack proportion with excuses made for underperformance we ultimately forget what success looks like.

Columnist Jeff Meadors may be reached at pjeffreymeadors@gmail.com