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BUT ARE THEY ACCURATE? NPR Ed Raises Questions About Historic Increase in High School Graduation Rates

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NPR Ed takes into account the three major ways states and districts attempt to improve high school graduation rates—early intervention, alternative routes to a diploma, and “gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books”—and raises questions about whether graduation rates are as high as claimed.

In “The Truth About America’s Graduation Rates,” NPR Ed partnered with fourteen member stations around the country to examine the historic increase in the nation’s high school graduation rate from 72 percent in 2002 to an all-time high of 81.4 percent in 2013, as announced by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s lead education blogger, explains in an article for the series that the urgency in reporting high school completion figures began in the early 2000s.

“The early 2000s were a dark time for state education statistics,” writes Kamenetz. “States could report high school graduation rates any old way they pleased, and many did. … But what was missing was a single, clear, comparable and accurate measure of graduation rates.”

This, Kamenetz says, led to the National Governors Association—chaired by U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) who was governor of Virginia at the time—convening a task force on state high school graduation data in 2005, and ultimately the development of the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) and new regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2008 that finally put in place a tracking system for states to not only report numbers but also to improve on them.

Still, as NPR Ed finds, not all methods of improvement are created equal. NPR Ed takes into account the three major ways states and districts attempt to improve high school graduation rates—early intervention, alternative routes to a diploma, and “gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books”—and raises questions about whether graduation rates are as high as claimed. “All these strategies—good, bad and ambiguous—raise the question: What does a high school diploma mean? What should it mean? Make the bar too high and students are denied opportunity. Make the bar too low and the diploma becomes devalued.”

Becky Vevea, an education reporter for Chicago’s WBEZ, calls out Chicago for using “questionable, quick fixes to improve their grad rates.” Using records from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) obtained under a Freedom of Information Act, Vevea finds that at least 2,200 students from twenty-five Chicago high schools were counted as having transferred out of the district between 2011 and 2014.

“In reality, they were dropouts,” she writes. “The transfers aren’t factored into CPS graduation rates, while dropouts are.”

In the article, CPS spokesperson Bill McCaffrey acknowledges that the district has a problem, but he said officials do not plan to go back and adjust the rates. Instead, CPS plans to (1) require random spot checks of all school transfer data; (2) require principals to sign a document taking full responsibility for making sure that students reported as transfers are actually transfers; (3) require staff to attend training; and (4) refer any questionable activity to CPS’s law department and the district’s Office of the Inspector General.

Texas, which reported a high school graduation rate of 88 percent for the 2012–13 school year, also appears to be engaging in some questionable practices. Reporting for KUT-FM, Katherine McGee discovers a number of students who are “off the books,” or reported to be seeking different routes to a diploma but failing to obtain it.

“In the fall of 2009, Texas counted 360,373 ninth graders, and over the next four years, 289,298 received diplomas,” writes McGee. “That should translate roughly to an 80 percent graduation rate, all else being equal. But Texas actually reports an 88 percent grad rate—the second highest in the country.”

To explain the higher percentage, McGee introduces Jaye McCurtain, a student in San Antonio who left her public school to be homeschooled after her eighth-grade year. McCurtain missed the deadline to enroll in online classes and three years later, she has yet to complete her degree, though the state would count her amount its graduates as an “other leaver.” McGee says Texas uses this catch-all code for many nontraditional students, including those being homeschooled, and counted some 50,000 other leavers in the last four years. Those students are not considered as dropouts by the state, which muddles the reported data.

While Chicago and Texas might be using “fuzzy math” to boost their high school graduation rates, other areas have made program changes inside schools that might be lowering expectations for students and giving less rigorous course work to underperforming students.

Jennifer Guerra of Michigan Radio tells the story of Kevin Mahone, a high school senior at Cody High School in Detroit where nearly all students are African American and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common indicator of poverty. The school was once considered a dropout factory, graduating only 60 percent of seniors each year. But the introduction of programs to help students quickly raise grades and the number of credits earned helped to change that.

“Even though Mahone’s mid-semester progress report said he was failing four classes, he wasn’t too worried,” Guerra writes. “That’s because he had a plan: To ask his teachers for ‘all this extra credit, try to turn these Fs to Cs before grades go in.’”

Guerra quotes Jeremy Singer, a teacher at Cody, who questions whether the school’s diplomas have been devalued. “I don’t think the degree from Cody right now is a proxy that says ‘Because you have this degree, we’re confident that you’ll get through college,’” Singer says. “And that’s the problem.”

Not every NPR Ed story for this series finds questionable practices and dubious gains. Dan Carsen, an education reporter at WBHM, examines the dramatic changes in Alabama’s high school graduation rate, which increased 8 percentage points from 2010 to 2013. Alabama State Superintendent Tommy Bice attributes the increase to setting a 90 percent graduation rate goal by 2020, more precise identification and monitoring of students with academic and attendance problems, and the state’s Alternative Learning Centers, which provide students with flexibility in learning and allows them complete school requirements with tailored programs that work with less traditional schedules.

In other parts of the country, NPR highlights efforts to help students graduate from high school through additional support. Graduation coaches, for example, lend guidance to students in Atlanta, Georgia. The program started in 2006 as an early intervention method for teens at risk of dropping out of school.

Martha Dalton of WABE tells the story of Korey Thomas, a student from Henry County High School, who was disinterested in school and failing classes until a graduation coach intervened with personal and academic support and “constantly checked up on him, making sure he was doing homework and turning in assignments.”

Dalton adds that Thomas is attending college this fall and that “although it’s hard to credit one program for better graduation rates, state data and other research show the program helped students graduate who may not have otherwise.”

Kamenetz points out that the worth of a diploma can often be measured in the acquisition of employment and a livable wage, but “it will take decades to know whether the students graduating from high school today will reap the same kind of lifetime benefits that their predecessors did from those diplomas. Graduation rates make for good headlines and applause lines, but they can’t capture that kind of nuance.”

Given this information, what should the public think of the reported 81.4 percent high school graduation rate? NPR Ed quotes Daria Hall, director of K–12 policy development at the Education Trust. “I think we have to take it with a big grain of salt. It’s a lot better than it used to be; we used to have no confidence in graduation rates.”

To view an illustrated summary of NPR’s special project, “The Truth about America’s Graduation Rates,” and access other stories from the project, visit http://apps.npr.org/grad-rates/.

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