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Last modified: Nov. 2000

Why This Measure?

Our community goal is for kids to be successful in school, and for schools to be supportive of success for a wide range of learning styles and needs. Success in school suggests that a young person’s life has some focus; successfully negotiating high school suggests that a teenager will be more capable of functioning effectively in the wider world.

High school completion is only one of many measures that can help tell us about how well our schools serve students — in this case, about how well they serve students with challenges. But high school completion by itself doesn’t tell us much. No one measure can fully reflect school quality. Other information would help us fill in the picture. Is the curriculum and structure meaningful and relevant to kids? Do kids feel safe and valued? Are policies and programs in place to help kids learn and grow through personal and educational problems? Do schools nurture creativity and critical thinking? If the answer to these kinds of questions is yes, kids will be more likely to remain in school to graduate.

Lead Indicator

Source: Missoula County Public Schools District Profile 2000,Montana Office of Public Instruction, Statewide Dropout Reports

How are we doing?

In the first year of statewide standardized reporting, dropouts for the big high schools in the state ranged from 4% to Missoula’s 11%. Since then, Missoula has shown an average rate that is lower, although at the three larger MCPS schools, the rate varies based on different demographic profiles of the student bodies.  Three other major districts had numbers similar to Missoula’s.  The statewide average for 7th and 8th grade dropouts is 0.5% (MCPS did not report for this age group), and we know that a group of kids leave the system between middle school and high school without being reflected in either group’s dropout numbers. In 1995-1996, OPI gathered dropout data using the reporting method developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, which uses a "snapshot" of the dropout picture in October of each school year. Over time, it should give us reliable trend data and allow us to compare different districts.

This data is provocative but limited. While having consistent dropout statistics is a step toward reducing dropouts, it is only a step. We also need to know when and why students leave, and to identify the policies that effectively keep kids in school. It may be worth noting that the three AA high schools with the lowest dropout rates do not automatically suspend kids with a certain number of unexcused absences.

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Who’s At Risk for Dropping Out?

Studies indicate that the chances of dropping out are higher for minority students and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But a 1989 analysis of dropout studies indicates that, nationally, 66% of dropouts are white, 68% come from two-parent families, 60% have C averages or better, and 71% have never failed a grade. (Dropout Rates in the United States, U.S. Dept. of Education 1990)

Small schools tend to have lower dropout rates, which is credited partly to the personal attention possible in small schools, and partly to the lack of options for a teenager in a small town. Frenchtown reported a phenomenally low 1% dropout rate for 1995-1996, while the average for schools its size was 3.9%. (OPI)


In 1996, 239 people took the GED test through Missoula Adult Basic Education, and 91% of them passed. In the 1995-1996 school year, the entire state recorded about 2900 dropouts and issued GEDs to 1164 people from 16 to 19 years old. About 12% of everyone in Montana taking the GED was American Indian. The UM College of Technology admitted 147 students with GEDs to their programs in the fall of 1997. (Adult Basic Ed, OPI, and the UM College of Technology)

Alternative Education

MCPS Independent Study Program

Forty-four students are currently enrolled in the new Independent Study Program (ISP), the first phase of Missoula County Public Schools' Alternative Education effort. Fifteen students are on a waiting list, and current staffing can handle 50 students. The program is designed for young adults ages 15 to 19 who otherwise would not be in traditional high school. Students need to apply and a screening committee looks at a number of factors, including whether the applicant can realistically complete his/her high school diploma before their last year of eligibility.

The program is marketed as a program of choice; students are "not sentenced here." Schedules are flexible to accommodate student needs; however, students must attend classes a minimum of 12 hours per week and make sustained progress. Students are required to cover the same credits required in traditional high school, and it is "not a watered down curriculum." Core classes are offered, and each student has an educational plan that is designed to fit his/her unique academic needs.

In this first class, more than 75% of parents have participated with their kids, and seem to be grateful that there is some other way to get their child through school.

During this initial year, soft money will support the program; next year per student funding based on numbers from the preceding year will kick in. The program is located at the Lifelong Learning Center, formerly Emma Dickinson Elementary School.

Home Schooling

In the MCPS district in 1996-1997, 67 elementary school kids and 25 high school kids were home schooled, compared to 56 and 15 the year before that. In 1996-1997, 754 Missoula elementary kids and 410 high school kids were in private schools, compared to 744 and 380 in the previous year. (OPI)

College Bound?

About 65% of MCPS students go on to college. The national rate is 50%. (MCPS Shareholder’s Report, Fall 1996) Nationally, about 50% of those starting college actually complete a bachelor’s degree. In Missoula the average is 70%. (MCPS)

Test Scores

As usual, Missoula County students scored higher than the national and state averages on the SAT tests for the 1996-1997 school year. This is partly because fewer students here take the test (22% statewide versus 42% nationally), and those taking it tend to be the top students. But this is true of several states besides Montana, and of the states with higher average scores, Montana had the highest percentage of test takers. (Missoulian, August 27, 1997) Whenever test scores are compared, we need to remember how closely they are tied to the socioeconomic status and education levels of the children’s households.


Future Jobs

Schools are certainly about more than job training. Still, there are interesting predictions for the future of the work force. Futurists are indicating that, by the year 2005, 60% of the jobs will require some kind of specialized training, only 25% will require even a traditional bachelor’s degree, and only 15% will be unskilled.



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