Guest Opinion: Grad stats don't tell whole story

The Dallas Morning News
Oct. 19
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We’ll take good news where we can get it, and a record high in the rate of U.S. students who are earning a high school diploma certainly qualifies.

On Monday, the White House proudly announced an unprecedented national graduation rate of 83.2 percent for the 2014-15 school year. And while gaps persist between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic counterparts, those gaps are narrowing. Every group showed at least modest improvement over the previous year.

But it’s not quite time for the nation’s education leaders to party in the streets.

Other key metrics for academic performance do not show similar improvement. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, reports that between 2013 and 2015, high school seniors’ test scores were flat for reading, and showed a slight decline in math. Average scores on the all-important SAT and ACT achievement exams also reflect a slight decline.

Why the disconnect? The reasons are complex, but some critics believe public pressure to increase graduation rates has not uniformly resulted in improved student performance.

Achieve, a national nonprofit that wants to improve standards for high school graduation, warns that turning high school into “graduation factories” can still leave students ill-prepared for college or careers.

“All students should graduate from high school ready for college, careers and citizenship,” said the organization’s president, Michael Cohen. The group’s website points out that graduation standards vary from state to state, with some offering multiple diploma types, some with less exacting requirements.

And there are dramatic differences in the measures various districts and states have taken to improve their graduation rates. An extensive investigation undertaken last year by National Public Radio’s education team and its local affiliates cited some of those measures.

Among the best: Iowa, which leads the nation with a 95 percent graduation rate, was cited as using such strategies as free day care, in-school food banks, smaller classes and flexible schedules to help disadvantaged students finish school. These programs aren’t cheap, but they show results.

Among the worst were districts that resorted to blatant numbers-juggling that bordered on fraud: Chicago’s public school system was forced to downgrade four years’ worth of graduation statistics after it was revealed that thousands of students classified as “transfers” should have been listed as dropouts.

In between, the study found, are countless districts that rely on a variety of lower-the-bar strategies to nudge borderline students through graduation. There are less-rigorous “credit recovery” programs for students who fail or miss courses; appeals options or easier makeup tests for students who fail mandatory exit exams; standards that allow students to “opt out” of coursework considered mandatory for college-and-career readiness.

U.S. Education Secretary John King, speaking to reporters in a conference call Monday to follow up on disclosure of the new graduation rates, conceded that there is much more work to do to ensure college readiness and career preparedness for all high school graduates.

So, yes, let’s welcome encouraging news. But let’s also acknowledge that we’re still a long way short of where we need to be.