83% graduate — but are they educated?

The U.S. high school graduation rate has hit 83 percent, rising to a new high for the fifth year in a row. “We’ve made real progress,” said President Barack Obama at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C.

President Obama greets students at Banneker High in Washington, D.C. The District has raised its high school graduation rate, but still ranks last in the nation. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

President Obama greets students at Banneker High in Washington, D.C. The District has raised its high school graduation rate, but still ranks last in the nation. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

While 90.2 percent of Asian-American students and 87.6 percent of whites earn a diploma, that falls to 77.8 percent for Latinos and 74.6 percent for blacks.

Iowa has the highest graduation rate at 90.8 percent. Washington D.C., despite rapid improvement, is at the bottom with a 68.5 percent rate.

While graduation rates are rising steadily, there’s no evidence students are better prepared for college or careers, note Anya Kametez and Cory Turner on NPR.

. . . scores of high school students on the test known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” are essentially flat, and average scores on the ACT and SAT are down.

. . . “For many students, a high school diploma is not a passport to opportunity, it’s a ticket to nowhere,” says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a national nonprofit that’s long advocated for higher standards and graduation requirements.

High school graduation exams often require only eighth- or ninth-grade skills. Some states have dropped the exams.

Just last month, in a major school funding ruling, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher excoriated his state for watered down graduation standards that, he says, have already resulted “in unready children being sent to high school, handed degrees, and left, if they can scrape together the money, to buy basic skills at a community college.”

There are lots of ways to raise graduation rate, an excellent NPR series revealed. Monitoring students’ progress and closing “dropout factories” have helped in some places. In others, schools have fudged the numbers or used dubious “credit recovery” schemes.

LA’s 75% grad rate: What do kids know?

A “credit-recovery binge” helped Los Angeles Unified raise its graduation rate to 75 percent — while requiring all students to pass college-prep courses, reports the LA Times. Are credit-recovery graduates prepared for college, jobs or anything else?

“When we see kids completing three years of high school in a year through credit recovery, that should raise alarms,” said Pedro Noguera, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of School Transformation.

The district can’t track how those students earned diplomas, reports the Times.

In some cases, students were allowed to make up work to change recorded grades. All records of the prior grade then disappeared from the district’s central data system, according to school site administrators, making it difficult to track such remediation in order to be fully accountable.

This year, graduates had to earn D’s or better in a college-prep sequence known as A-G that includes Algebra II, two years of foreign language and a year of a college-preparatory elective such as geography or statistics, reports the Times.

“We know 100% of all kids can graduate fully passing the A to G,” said Steve Zimmer, the school board president. (State universities don’t accept grades lower than C in A-G courses.)

Even before the credit-recovery push, many Los Angeles Unified graduates found themselves in remedial classes in college, Noguera pointed out.

College for all is a mistake, writes Walt Gardner, who taught in Los Angeles Unified for 28 years. Many of his former students “who gained skills through high school vocational courses or through certificate programs in community colleges are steadily making a good living working with their hands,” he writes. “In contrast, some former students with a bachelor’s degree have been underemployed for protracted periods of time, all the while struggling to pay off their student debt.”

Fudging grad rates via ‘credit recovery’


Owensmouth High  students received their diplomas on June 8. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Only 54 percent of Los Angeles Unified seniors were on track to graduate in December, due to new (absurd) requirements that everyone complete the college-prep sequence required by state universities.

By the end of March, 68 percent were on track, reports the Los Angeles Times. In June, an estimated 74 percent received their diplomas. What happened?

Online credit recovery courses enabled thousands of students who failed regular classes to qualify for a diploma, reports the editorial board. But did they learn anything?

LAUSD: English Language Arts 11A, which is supposed to be the first semester of junior-year English, could take 50 or 60 hours, reports the Times.

The reading excerpts come from fine and often challenging literature — “Moby-Dick,” “The Scarlet Letter,” great poetry and the like. Video lectures give the background of the works and teach lessons about tone, setting, vocabulary choice and so forth. There are four writing assignments during each semester.

But students can test out of much of the course, including the writing, by passing a 10-question multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of each unit.

With a score of 60% or better — six of the questions — a student passes the unit, without having to go through the lectures, read the full materials or write the essays. Opening up other tabs on the computer to search for answers on the Internet is allowed. That’s not really cheating: The questions aren’t about straightforward facts. Students must interpret passages, for instance. But there’s plenty of help online via Sparks notes and other resources, and a full hour is given to answer the 10 questions.

Students aren’t asked to read a full book in the first semester; the second semester requires one book.

“I’ve seen students make up a semester’s worth of credits in a school year’s final month and then miraculously earn their diplomas,” wrote teacher Mario Gonzalez in response. “I’ve seen kids who don’t even know their multiplication tables or how to reduce a fraction pass algebra (on paper, at least).”

He asks: “What’s the point of patting ourselves on the back for improved graduation rates if the diploma itself is highly devalued?”

Fudging graduation numbers is a lot easier than educating students, concludes the Times editorial board. “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.”

46% of LA seniors are off graduation track

Forty-six percent of Los Angeles Unified’s high school seniors aren’t on track to graduate, reports Craig Clough for LA School Report, citing district data.

This year, students must pass college-prep courses, known as A-G requirements, to earn a diploma. Those who pass with a “C” or better –a “D” is a passing grade — can apply to state universities.

Last year, Los Angeles Unified's graduation rate was 74%, but students didn't need to pass college-prep courses. Photo: Crystal Marie Lopez

Last year, Los Angeles Unified’s graduation rate was 74%, but students didn’t need to pass college-prep courses. Photo: Crystal-Marie Lopez

Los Angeles Unified’s school board decided to require all graduates to pass the A-G sequence in 2005. After 11 years to prepare, district officials are ramping up “credit recovery” programs to push more students to a diploma.

The district’s $15-million credit recovery program “puts students in specials classes after school and during breaks to help them pass classes they previously failed,” reports Clough. District leaders report an extremely high participation rate and predict a high pass rate.

Graduation rate hits 82.3%

Nationwide, the four-year high school graduation rate rose to 82.3 percent for the class of 2014, the U.S. Education Department reports. That’s up 1 percent from the previous year.

Gains were largest for lower-achieving groups, but gaps remain wide. While 89.4 percent of Asian-American students and 87.2 percent of whites earned a diploma in four years, only 76.3 percent of Hispanics and 72.5 percent of blacks did so.

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Four-year graduation rates topped 90 percent in Iowa and Nebraska with New Jersey and Wisconsin close behind.

In the District of Columbia, only 61 percent of students graduated on time. New Mexico and Nevada also were at the bottom of the list.

Graduation rates can be manipulated, as Anya Kamenetz writes on NPR. “The rising graduation rate reflects both genuine progress and some questionable strategies.” States are trying “early warning systems and increased support, to multiple diploma tracks, second chances, and in some cases apparent manipulation of statistics.

I’m very dubious about the use of credit-recovery programs to help students make up classes they’ve failed — often with little effort or learning.

Are Nashville schools faking the grade?

Thanks to rising test scores, Nashville schools no longer face a state take over. But two educators charge high schools are “faking the grade” by not testing low performers, reports News Channel 5.

CR_USDeptEdTennessee high schools are evaluated based on students’ scores on end-of-course exams in English, algebra, biology and chemistry.

In 2013-2014, Pearl-Cohn, Nashville’s lowest-performing school, was  “under the gun to get our scores up,” says Kelly Brown. In April, her principal brought her a list of students to pull from classes before the end-of-course exams.

“A lot of them were, yes, failing – but not by much. There were some that were actually passing,” Brown said.

One Pearl-Cohn student passed the first semester of Algebra I with an 81. But she scored “below basic” on practice tests. She was assigned to finish Algebra I in a computer lab using a program the district calls A-Plus. More than a year later, she hadn’t finished Algebra I.

“Without real structure and guidance,” most students don’t finish A-Plus, says Brown.

The same thing happened at low-performing Hunters Lane High, says counselor Shana West. She got in trouble for promoting students who weren’t allowed to finish their classes.

Brenda Seay’s granddaughter was passing English I and Algebra I at Hunters Lane, when she was pulled from both classes. Seay wasn’t told why.

. . . Kelly Brown had evidence that last year — as Pearl-Cohn High School faced the risk of a state takeover — the enrollment in independent study went from three classes with 47 students in the fall to 11 classes with 119 students in the spring.

At test time, the pass rate nearly doubled in Algebra I and Algebra II proficiency quintupled.

Quick fixes for low grad rates


Why are graduation rates rising? In some places, quick — and dubious — fixes are responsible, reports NPR.

Many Chicago high schools mislabel departing students, for example.

They were saying they were moving out of town or going to private schools when, in reality, they were enrolling at the district’s alternative schools or, in some cases, GED programs.

. . . One school listed 120 students from the Class of 2013 as having left to be home-schooled.

Credit recovery programs, which let students earn credits after failing a class, are very, very popular — and usually not very demanding.

New Jersey requires students to take a graduation exam, but those who fail can take a second, much easier test, reports Sarah Gonzalez of WNYC. The untimed test has one question per subject.

Yet half the senior class in Camden, New Jersey failed the first and the second exam. Statewide, 1,400 students failed both exams last year, says Gonzalez.  Most graduated anyhow.

There’s an appeals process. And students can submit samples of work they did in class to the state. It can be a single, graded algebra problem or a persuasive essay with a teacher’s comments on it.

. . . The mandatory high school graduation exam just isn’t a barrier to graduation anymore.

Iowa has the nation’s highest high school graduation rate at 90 percent. NPR looks at an alternative high school in Des Moines that provides intensive support to get about half its low-income, low-motivation students to the finish line.

Graduation rates aren’t exactly accurate, but they are at an all-time high, according to Nathaniel Malkus at AEI.

Online credits are easy, worthless

When Darren’s math students can’t pass a course, they earn high school credit for an easier online course, he writes on Right on the Left Coast. It’s “educational malpractice,” he argues.

. . . students can pass those online courses, even though they wouldn’t stand a chance of passing the “same” class at our school.  Our school district knows this, too, and still approves such classes for credit.

. . . Our school district also has a computerized “credit recovery” program.  Like “the miracle of summer school,” students who have failed classes — in many cases, failed so many that they’d never graduate on time were it not for credit recovery — can make up their classes via online programs.

. . . I exaggerate only slightly:  a student can read a couple things on the computer screen, answer a couple questions on the next screen about what they just read, and voila! Instant education.

Students can make up semesters of failed classes in a month or two, then receive a high school diploma, writes Darren. “We’re selling meaningless credentials.”

Credit recovery goes online

As high schools struggle to raise graduation rates, many have turned to online credit recovery programs, writes Hechinger’s Sarah Carr on Education Next. Are students learning — or just being moved along? It’s not clear, but many are dubious.

“There’s a political motivation,” says David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College. “It’s an end run around higher standards.”

Oceanside Unified in California improved graduation rates after opening three centers that offer online credit recovery. Superintendent Larry Perondi believes “the centers have improved the life prospects of students who would have dropped out otherwise, including young parents and teens battling drug addiction.”

Perondi “encourages the district’s best teachers to work” in the centers and assigns extra counselors and social workers to support students.

Three New Orleans charters enroll only students who’ve fallen behind in coursework.

Their supporters argue that the schools provide a much-needed safety valve for students who don’t work well in conventional settings and prefer to move through courses at their own pace; critics worry about the quality of the online courses and fear they take the onus off of traditional high schools to meet the needs of all students.

At the Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy, the average student is an 18-year-old sophomore. “Some of the students failed the same classes multiple times; others dropped out for a period of months, or years,” writes Carr. “The school supplements the online courses with in-person tutorials and small-group instruction.”

The NET, another charter for high-risk students, combines online courses with traditional in-person classes and “advisories.”

Students and teachers say the online courses have some universal benefits: the teenagers can move at their own pace and get instant feedback on how they are doing.

. . . The biggest drawback, however, is that many of the courses are either too easy or too hard. . . . stronger schools and teachers are increasingly figuring out how to use the online courses as a jumping-off point to address individual students’ needs, supplementing easy courses with more challenging material, for instance, or harder courses with extra in-person tutorials.

But some schools rely exclusively on the online courses.

Success charters lose space in NYC

The high-performing Success Academy charter network will lose space for three schools, the New York Post reports. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Education reversed “co-location” decisions made last year.

The actions block new elementary schools in Queens and at Murry Bergtraum High School near City Hall. Bergtraum is the F-rated school running an online “credit recovery” program that’s left students illiterate.

At Success Academy Harlem 4, already in operation, the decision will leave 210 fourth and fifth graders without a school in the fall.

The Harlem charter is one of the top performing schools in the city, said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. At Success Academy’s Harlem 4, “83 percent of the students passed the state math exam last year, putting it in the top one percent of all schools in the state. Why would anyone want to stop that kind of student achievement?”

Success charters’ success has annoyed the mayor, write Andrew Rotherham and Richard Whitmire in USA Today. The schools, run by the controversial Eva Moskowitz, have shown that low-income minority students can earn high test scores.

Consider the third-graders at Success Academy Harlem 5. They share a public school building with P.S. 123. If Harlem 5 children lose their seats, they might have to enroll in P.S. 123.

. . . The schools have similar students, but 88% of Harlem 5 third-graders passed New York’s math test compared with 5% of P.S. 123’s.

New York City charter students are outperforming peers who attend traditional public schools, a study by Stanford’s CREDO found. There are 70,000 students enrolled in the city’s charter schools and 50,000 more students on charter school waiting lists.