In 2014, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced a spectacular improvement in its graduation rate: Fully 77% of students who had come in as 9th graders four years earlier were now going to graduate as seniors. But there was a bit of a trick behind the number: It included only students who attended what are called "comprehensive" high schools. Those who had been transferred to alternative programs — the students most at risk of dropping out — weren't counted. If they had been factored in, the rate would have been 67% — still good, but not nearly as flashy a number.
Here's another example of a misleading number: In May of this year, the California Department of Education reported a rise in the statewide graduation rate, to 82%. But one reason for that was the cancellation of the high school exit exam, which used to be required for graduation and which students could pass only if they had attained a modicum of understanding of algebra and English skills.
In a time when most middle-class jobs require at least some training beyond 12th grade, raising the number of high school graduates is considered essential. Dropouts are not only more likely to be unemployed, but more likely to be imprisoned. That's why the newly passed federal education law, optimistically titled the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires states to hold high schools accountable for improving graduation rates.
The question, though, is whether schools will bring those numbers up the hard way, by improving the quality of education – or by falling back on shortcuts and gimmicks. Early indications suggest that they'll do a combination of both. States and school districts, not just locally but across the nation, have already come up with a wide array of ways to make graduation rates look good on paper:
-- When large numbers of students across the country failed high school exit exams over the past decade, states made it easier for them to pass. California devised a simpler test; in New Jersey, students who failed were permitted to take a far easier exam that asked them only one question for each subject area. And if they still failed, they could appeal by doing an essay or another project. Last year in Camden, N.J., after nearly half the students flunked the initial exam, almost all of them were able to get their diplomas through one of the other routes.
-- Several states, including California, have eliminated their high school exit exams altogether. And California was among at least six states — including Texas and Georgia — to award retroactive diplomas to students who had failed their exit exams in previous years.
-- In Chicago, low-performing public school students were counseled to leave school for job-training or graduate-equivalency programs, and then counted as transfers rather than dropouts. When an outcry ensued, the school district lowered its previously inflated graduation rates in 2015.
--Texas allows schools to count students as "leavers" rather than dropouts if they say they're moving elsewhere or doing home-schooling, without checking into whether those assertions are true.
-- Perhaps the newest and most widespread method that schools are using to boost graduation rates are online credit-recovery courses such as the ones that L.A. Unified offered this academic year when only about 54% of seniors were on track to graduate. After a hefty dose of online credit-recovery courses and other efforts, the latest but still preliminary figure is now reported to be 74%. These courses can be rigorous and valuable educational tools – but they also sometimes allow students to too quickly and too easily make up the courses they have failed.
Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara, is not a fan of measuring a school's success by its graduation rate for precisely that reason: Doing so encourages schools to lower their standards or to use misleading numbers or to find ways to get failing students out of their schools without having to count them as dropouts. In any case, he says, "a diploma is a blunt instrument" for measuring learning; one study found that low-income students need to show better mastery of the material than merely a pass in order to have a real shot at reaching the middle class.
Like it or not, Rumberger says, higher standards — such as those in the Common Core curriculum standards recently adopted in California and most other states — tend to mean lower graduation rates, and it's disingenuous for states to say they can raise both at once, and quickly.
It's not that schools, including those at L.A. Unified, haven't made some authentic progress in graduating more students. The district deserves credit for taking steps to follow up on absent students before they become chronically truant. It has eliminated out-of-school suspensions for relatively minor misbehavior. (Rumberger was involved in a recent study showing that suspension increases a student's risk of dropping out.) These days, high school staff at many schools seem to be more personally familiar with students than they used to be, and the students in turn seem more comfortable interacting with the adults. Counselors more often take the initiative, sitting students down to talk about how they will make up missing credits. And the district has been offering after-school and Saturday makeup classes as well as the online credit-recovery courses.
But under pressure to produce better numbers, school officials in California and nationwide have often done whatever it takes to get to those numbers, including lowering standards while pretending to raise them, and reclassifying students instead of educating them. These students then go on to college or the workplace, mistakenly thinking they have the skills they'll need.
The irony is that the school-reform movement that has been leading the push for higher graduation rates got its start years ago in a struggle to raise academic standards. It arose in response to complaints from employers that a high school diploma hardly meant anything anymore. School reformers and Chamber of Commerce representatives complained that high school graduates couldn't pass the written test to become delivery drivers or construction apprentices. Standardized tests, including high school exit exams, were supposed to ensure that students reached at least a minimal level of proficiency.
But schools in some areas — Texas and New York City were infamous examples — started pushing out low-performing students. That led to greater recognition that schools nationwide were, if not going as far as Texas by actively discouraging the students who most needed their help, also not doing much to get them to stay and raise their academic ambitions.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which never did much to encourage higher graduation rates, might be dead, but its successor will have little chance of succeeding if policymakers aren't realistic about the work and patience required to raise standards, test scores and graduation rates. It's slow, hard, incremental work without magic solutions, and improved numbers aren't always evidence of better-educated students.
This piece is the second in a two-part series. Read part one here.