Graduation Rates: Mission Impossible
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
In a recent post, Mel Riddile highlighted several of the shortcomings associated with the latest method for determining graduation rates mandated by the U.S. Department of Education. While the goal of this policy is worthy—standardizing the calculations throughout the nation—the resulting process is flawed, unfair and ultimately inaccurate. The two key problems are an arbitrary time frame and an unrealistic as well as potentially punitive accounting for transfer students.
Simple does not equal accurate
The ultimate goal of a graduation rate should be to measure a school’s effectiveness in producing successful students. One of the reasons why the accuracy of this statistic has been so elusive is that it depends on so many variables. In attempting to simplify the process, the Department of Education has built a method of measurement that will make for easy computations but misleading results. What this overhaul ignores is that schools with high rates of poverty, mobility and ELL populations will be evaluated on information that does not truly reflect the academic performance occurring in their building. Dr. Riddile explained the problems with this new system from the perspective of a principal. Here are three stories to illustrate the view from inside the classroom.
Easy come, easy go
In schools with high mobility the percentage of students who spend their entire academic careers at the same location can be surprisingly small. My former school had an annual mobility rate of about 30% meaning that approximately one of every three students left during a typical year. But during that time the size of the student body was extremely stable. With remarkable consistency virtually every individual who moved to a new district or returned to their home country would be offset by someone coming in the opposite direction. I once taught an introductory ELL course, Individual Math 1, which began the year with 24 students and finished with the same number. Only one-half of those students were enrolled for the entire course. This level of movement is not a reflection of the quality of education being provided; rather, it reveals the nature of the student body. Consequently, under the new Department of Education guidelines while the actual instruction in that classroom may have been excellent, the dropout rate of these ninth-graders bordered on 50%. Clearly labeling unverified transfer students as dropouts places an unfair burden on such schools. The alternative, precise tracking of all of these individuals as mandated by this plan, would be far too costly in terms of time and energy.
A tale of two graduates
Maria was in my Algebra 1 class. She was smart, hardworking, reliable and the mother of a one-year old son. Her boyfriend (soon to be her husband) and the baby lived with her family while she completed high school. During her freshman year she made a detour to give birth but when she returned the next year there was no request for special treatment. She passed my class and all of her other classes. After five years at the school marched across the stage at graduation. When I last heard from her she was an assistant manager at a bank. While the data may label her as a drop-out, I can promise you she was not.
Michelle, my second example, was a quiet and petite member of my Pre-calculus class. A refugee from Viet Nam she did not look like a 22-year-old. But the path to her senior year of high school was very different than most. What should have been her middle school years were spent either on a boat or in a prisoner of war camp. When she finally arrived in this country she had the life experiences of an adult and the education of a child. As a 17-year-old “freshman” she had to overcome language and emotional difficulties few others could even imagine. Despite these immense challenges she succeeded in a college preparatory curriculum to earn a diploma as she approached her 23rd birthday. Though her story was far from traditional it deserved positive recognition by any legitimate measure.
Numbers cannot measure everything
As a mathematician, I would love to be able to state that every human endeavor can be measured quantitatively. Unfortunately such precision is not always possible. Even baseball, the most data driven sport on the planet, cannot evaluate simply on numbers. Every pitch, every swing of the bat, every spit is recorded, calculated and documented. But despite this wealth of statistical data there are players in baseball who need to be seen to be appreciated. There are no precise metrics to measure breaking up a double play, diving to catch balls, sprinting on every play or simply being unselfish.
Formulating a simple yet accurate device for determining high school graduation rates is equally difficult. What many of the educational policy makers may not understand is that the diversity of a student body is not just about ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status. It also includes both the time required to graduate and the stability of their residency. This most recent attempt by the Department Education is clearly not the answer.