Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Did the Graduation Rate Really Go Up 10 Points?

My friend Carol who lives on Bainbridge Island keeps up on all the news and brings the latest to her Pasta & Politics discussion group. I'm flattered that the P&P group has decided to take a look at 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools for a future meeting.

Carol saw the recent Washington Post piece celebrating the miraculous rise in the high school graduation rate from 70% to 80%. She wrote and asked: "Is this a reflection of teaching to the test, knocking kids out before we start counting them as in? Is it really good news?"

My reply to Carol follows:
Carol, you're right to question this kind of superficial stuff. "Graduation rates" look simple, but all social indicators are very complex when you unpack them. You wouldn't expect something like "abortion rates" or "incarceration rates" to be simple, and they aren't. Neither are graduation rates.

Here's my guess as to what raised the rate from 70% to 80% in about 15 years. You have the charter school movement and the great majority of those students transferred out of tradition schools because they were failing. They found a more convivial (less demanding?) home in the charter schools and they graduated.

But the charter school movement, as big as it is (5% of the school population), is not big enough to move that indicator ten percentage points. What probably accounts for most of the rise in the graduation rate is the pressure put on schools by the "accountability movement," which is in fact coincident with the rising rate. School administrators and teachers have been increasingly pressured to "show results." State and federal sanctions and penalties were promised if the schools didn't show improved performance. The schools have responded as we all would — they gamed the system. Here's a good example. Denver North High took all the kids who flunked algebra and enrolled them in an online algebra course being piped across country by a Seattle company called APEX. This system is becoming increasingly common across the country; it's called "credit recovery." The course and the final exam were a sham, and the North High School teachers and administrators knew it. Kids got credit for the course even when they only logged on a few hours during the entire semester. And for the final exam, all the students were herded into an auditorium to take the online exam proctored by an administrator. Now the students may not have learned much algebra, but they weren't dumb. They had smart phones and knew the location of a website that solves algebra problems! Denver North's graduation rate jumped from 65% to 75% in one year! A local weekly newspaper called Westword blew the lid off the program, and the graduation rate at North quickly drifted back to 65%.

There are plenty of politicians and corporate types hanging around ready to jump on statistics like "10 percentage point gain in graduation rate" in order to take advantage of what seems like a simple victory. And there are plenty of people around willing to lay blame for bad news at the door of their competitors. But as you well know, the world is too complicated for such simple answers.

All the best to you and Jim, g~

P.S. Hope I haven't ruined your appetite for the pasta.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder

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