Thursday, March 12, 2015

Graduation Rates - the truth is in there somewhere....

Last month, the Everett School District published a "Good News" letter about rising graduation rates in the district.  We are now less than 1% away from the coveted and celebrated Northshore and Lake Washington School Districts in terms of on-time graduation rates.  Seems like good news, doesn't it? 

However, 10 years ago, the same graduation rate in this district was 14% LOWER than it is today. Ten years ago, the graduation rates in Northshore and Lake Washington School District were a mere 3% lower than they were last year.   When you add in the fact that Everett has seen a dramatic rise while having 40% of our students on free or reduced lunches (the ever-present achievement gap between low-income and middle class kids) when LWSD and NS had about 15% of their kids on the same is suspicious.  If we recognize that lower income kids often struggle with school, how is it that in a district where nearly half the kids are "low income" that graduation rates have risen so dramatically to the level of higher income districts?  That's some kind of educational genius to make that happen or the "achievement gap" is a lie.  It can't be both.  

Graduation rates are a GIANT bullet point on an administrator's resume. Showing a dramatic increase during one's tenure creates job potential GOLD! However, they are also pretty darn easy to manipulate.  Pushing kids out of school after 4 or even 5 years is easy.  But, graduating EDUCATED kids who have proven themselves competent and educated is quite another matter.  But, what happens AFTER they "graduate" is not a Superintendent's problem, nor does anyone ask that in a job interview because it's not measurable.  

If you lower the bar far enough, you can create LOTS of graduates. Graduation rates should mean very little in the grand scheme of education.  The real measure of success is how many of those kids met high standards vs. how many were just passed along.  But, once they are released from the public school system, no one blames the Superintendent for their failure to succeed in college.  It's all about the graduation rates for him.  

Has the Everett School District done some things to help increase graduation rates?  I will say they have.  The addition of "Success Coordinators" to make sure kids falling between the cracks get held accountable may have increased the number of kids who actually get a diploma.  However, that doesn't come without the pressure to get those kids to graduation that is patently unfair to those kids.

I have heard several disturbing anecdotes from parents of high school students that I don't believe are isolated incidents.  I believe they are part of the grand scheme to raise graduation rates because teachers have also told me they are pressured to not fail students.  

1. Students are passed along regardless of their grade:  I have heard from teachers that there is pressure to pass students no matter what.  Some will give a minimum grade on a final no matter how bad the student does. Some will pass the student if they do very little in class but pass the EOC exam. One mother told me of her son who had an F in a math class for the entire semester high school student had an F the ENTIRE semester but suddenly got a D on the report card.  The pressure is to pass them no matter what.  I have heard all of these from parents in the district.  So, it doesn't matter how incompetent you are at the end of the semester, you are passed along at the expense of your education just so you can become a graduation rate statistic. 

Fifty-seven percent of WA high school students who enter WA Community or Technical colleges must take remedial classes (that they pay for) in order to be able to sign up for college classes.  Of that 57%, 51% must take a remedial math class before they can take college level math.  So, the education you should be getting for FREE in our public schools becomes something you must pay for in college just so the Superintendent can take a victory lap about increasing graduation rates.  

2. The Bar is lowered to the floor:  Two mothers have told me two very disturbing stories about how their high school students "graduated".  The first was the mother of a Special Ed student who was told that he could "graduate" after 4 years if he wrote a rap song about school.  That was it - his final exam to get out of high school.  She could not accept that so demanded they keep him for another year and expect him to pass some level of actual test that demonstrated that they had educated him.  

Another mother told me that her son couldn't pass the required HS math test. So, they looked back and saw that he had passed the state's 8th grade math test so they lowered the bar for him back to 8th grade and let him graduate. What a service to that student.....  But, he graduated and the "rate" ticked up just a tiny bit because of it.  

3. Minimum Standards are applied:  I have heard of teachers who will guarantee you a passing grade if you do X.  X can be showing up to class every day all semester (or baking cookies for the teacher if you miss a day) or students are guaranteed a minimum grade on a test no matter how you do on it just for "effort".  So, I can show up to class every day and stare at the ceiling and get an A or at least pass.  Seen it and been part of it.

4. Watering it all down: A girl I know took Calculus in a local high school and got an A.  She then went on to a state university and signed up for Pre-Calculus, thinking she'd do well in the class and came out with a C-.  She was shocked at how difficult it was.  She said it was as if she had never seen calculus in her life. A family I know who lived in the Mill Creek elementary boundaries moved to Oxford, Mississippi in the Spring of a school year and was told by the Oxford school district that their three children needed to either repeat the same grade the following year OR attend summer school to catch up.    

5. WHO is actually graduating? It's important to note that the graduation rates are just telling you the percentage of SENIORS graduating, not the percentage of ALL students in the system.  So, if a kindergarten class starts out in Everett Public Schools with 24 kids and only 18 of them make it to their senior year (assuming all of them stayed in Everett), then it's not 90+% of those 24, it's 90+% of the 18 who didn't drop out before their Senior year.  Don't be fooled into thinking that 90% of ALL KIDS in Everett Public Schools WILL graduate - it's just that percentage of Seniors.    

So, I'm questioning the district patting themselves on the back.  Of course there is room for improvement for our graduation rates.  But, the dramatic rise in graduation rates is largely inexplicable and almost unbelievable.  And, the question begs to be asked, if Gary Cohn has the magic formula to raise graduation rates like that, why is it when he started at the Port Angeles School District in 2001 that the graduation rate was 4 points HIGHER than when he left at the end of the 2008 school year?