Three years ago in his State of Union address, President Obama praised the country’s record-breaking high school graduation rates, boasting that we were making strides to “prepare our kids for a more competitive world.” Since then, much attention has been directed towards record-breaking graduation rates across the country, including the latest peak of the national graduation rate: 84 percent for the 2015 -2016 school year. Perhaps the most promising aspect of this figure is the upswing in graduation rates of students who have historically lagged behind.
Recent news out of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), however, has made room for skepticism. Last November, DCPS school Ballou High, allowed a staggering number of chronically absent students to graduate—one student even graduated despite being absent over 150 days in one school year. Initial findings from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) uncovered that this practice was quite commonplace across the district, noting that as many as one in ten students graduated from DCPS despite excessive absences during the 2016-2017 school year.
The report also found that 64 percent of students who graduated from Ballou High School did so as a result of grading and attendance policy violations. Subsequent inquiries uncovered similar practices in other DCPS schools, such as Dunbar High School, where administrators made 4,000 changes to students’ attendance records after teachers filed them. These revelations cast doubts on the progress that low-performing schools are making, suggesting that instead of making progress, administrators have masked schools’ ineffectiveness.
What happened at DCPS also brings another important fact to light: schools that are most likely to be engulfed by graduation-rate scandals are often populated by high numbers of students of color, low-income students, and English learners. Such was the case for Ballou and Dunbar High School where 100 percent of students come from poverty and 99 percent identify as Black or Latino.
This is a familiar story. Last year, Los Angeles Public Schools (LAUSD), along with two other California school districts, was found to have inflated graduation rates for the 2013-2014 school year. According to an audit by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general's office, administrators in the districts counted students as graduates who had not met the graduation requirements and removed others from the 2014 graduating cohort when they left the district for other schools or programs that would not earn them a regular high school diploma. Once again, a familiar group of students comprised the demographic, as LAUSD serves high numbers of low-income students, students of color, and English learners.
Additionally, common indicators of student achievement also show wavering and uneven progress, further calling into question rising graduation rates. A recent report on Minnesota's public school system indicates that many students graduate high school without the ability to read or do math at the high school level. This isn’t isolated to Minnesota. Nationwide, student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress paints a somber picture of student success.
This mismatch between graduation rates and student progress is concerning, given the clout these rates have in accountability frameworks. Currently, graduation rates are baked into accountability formulas for districts and schools—and some states give this indicator substantial weight. In theory, this is a good thing: accountability measures should prompt planning for school improvement and identify where to focus supports.
Accountability measures also have another important purpose: to ensure that schools are effectively serving and educating students who are the furthest behind. In fact, decision-makers often cite the opportunity gap between Black, Latino, and English learner students and their white monolingual peers as a reason schools should be held accountable. Given this backdrop, setting accountability standards and ambitious goals are logical, judicious actions.
Unfortunately, these efforts to promote equity have managed—quite ironically—to inflict a higher burden of ineffective practices on marginalized students yet again.
Their failing lies in a logical paradox. The desire to increase graduation rarely leads to an influx of support to high-needs schools that often face shortages in the number of quality teachers, counselors, support staff, as well as relevant materials, up-to-code facilities, and other incredibly important tools for an ideal learning environment. With little support for improving learning opportunities and increased pressure to produce results, teachers and school administrators are left to artificially raise students’ grades and graduation rates.
The problem is exacerbated in places where high school graduation rates are tied to principal evaluations. At DCPS, where that is the case, teachers felt pressure from administrators to give students grades they didn’t deserve, a survey from the Washington Teachers Union and a local advocacy group found. Evidently, the system within low-graduation-rate high schools forces both teachers and administrators to choose between being honest and being reprimanded.
Historically, a high-school diploma has lead to a myriad of established benefits, including participation in post-secondary education, increased rates of employment, higher levels of income, and decreased likelihood to be involved in the criminal justice system. Given the benefits, it is no surprise decision-makers want all students to obtain them. But they must ask themselves an important question if they are serious about helping vulnerable students reap the benefits of a high school degree: If these young people do not have the most basic reading, math, and writing skills needed to fill out a job application or balance their checkbook, what clout does a high school diploma have to improve their livelihood?
We need to acknowledge that while setting ambitious goals for high school graduation rates and establishing accountability frameworks around them is essential, so is ensuring we are better serving our most vulnerable students. Graduation rates, along with other indicators of school and student success, should be used to focus support so that teachers have the resources they need to support student learning. While this is the current theoretical goal of accountability systems, it needs to be seen now in practice. High graduation rates are a universal goal—but they can’t come artificially. They will only be truly impactful as the natural result of policies that ensure all students have access to a quality education.
This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For February, the fellows have decided to respond to this quote from Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”