California Forum

Rising graduation rates are good news for California high schools – or are they?

Monterey Trail High School students wait for family and friends after commencement ceremonies at Golden 1 Center on Monday, May 22, 2017 in Sacramento.
Monterey Trail High School students wait for family and friends after commencement ceremonies at Golden 1 Center on Monday, May 22, 2017 in Sacramento. rbyer@sacbee.com

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on educational issues for the upcoming elections.

The public schools in Washington, D.C., are awash in scandal these days. Sure, there’s the one about the superintendent, who was forced to resign this year when it was discovered that he’d skirted his own school district’s lottery system to get his daughter into one of the most sought-after schools.

But the big one, the one that affects thousands of young lives, is the discovery that the District of Columbia Public Schools were vastly inflating their graduation rates. With test scores foundering, the district was pointing to its ever-rosier graduation rates to tout the success of its reforms. Yet at one school with a 76 percent graduation rate, only 1 percent of the students had passed the math standards test. Then D.C. Public Schools took things a little too far, boasting about a school where all the seniors were graduating and going on to college. So it said.

Now that the nation’s new reform law is judging schools in part by their graduation rates, schools have an incentive to fudge the numbers by quietly lowering standards for graduation and pressuring teachers. The result will be diplomas that mean even less than when we started.

As it turned out, an independent report on the D.C. public schools found that one in five graduates in 2017 had been absent for at least half the school year. One in three had received diplomas in violation of district policy. There were problems with “credit recovery” courses that were easier than the ones students were supposed to pass, and a series of late grade changes that turned flunking students into passing ones. A majority of the district’s teachers said in a union poll that they had been pressured to change grades so that students could graduate. And at some schools, close to three-fourths of the graduates weren’t qualified to do so.

If this sort of thing were confined mostly to the D.C. public schools, it would simply be another example of bad actors, like the giant test-cheating scandal in Atlanta. But grad-rate inflation shows signs of being much more prevalent than that.

And it speaks to one of the great ironies of school reform: The movement started because employers and policy-makers were concerned about how little a high-school diploma seemed to mean anymore, especially among low-income students of color. They had a piece of paper, but not the skills. Now that the nation’s new reform law is judging schools in part by their graduation rates, schools have an incentive to fudge the numbers by quietly lowering standards for graduation and pressuring teachers. The result will be diplomas that mean even less than when we started.

Examples of cheating on the standardized tests were of grave concern a few years ago and played a part in the move to measure schools by more than their test scores. In truth, though, test scores are much more difficult to manipulate than graduation rates (and suspension rates, for that matter).

And there is a multitude of ways to look good on graduation rates without breaking any actual rules. California dramatically improved its graduation rates by fiddling with the high-school exit exam, first by making it easier, then by eliminating it altogether. Considering that the test measured largely 9th grade skills, this isn’t cause for optimism.

A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District raised its graduation rate from a projected 52 percent to more than 80 percent within a few months, largely through reliance on online credit-recovery courses that allowed students to pass various chapter units without even watching the lectures or reading the material.

According to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, if the students could get 60 percent of the questions right on a simple 10-question pre-exam, they passed the whole unit, even the writing assignments. And that was with access to the internet. For an entire year’s college-prep English course, the students read only one full book.

An official for the University of California, which approves the courses accepted for UC and Cal State attendance, expressed surprise about that. But the university never rescinded its approval or demanded higher standards for these courses.

The games go on. Chicago schools were routinely sending their failing students to job-training or diploma-equivalency programs and then not counting them as dropouts, the Times reported. If students said they were moving to another school, Texas schools were routinely counting them as transferred without checking that they actually did enroll elsewhere. Many of those students were, in fact, dropouts. Teachers in many districts talk quietly about being prodded to pass their failing students.

The NCAA, not particularly known for its emphasis on academics, actually has much higher requirements for online credit-recovery courses. Officials there say they have seen online courses that required only a few hours of work. In order to attend college as NCAA athletes, students cannot pre-test out of any chapters; they have to take the full courses, and they must have regular interaction with a teacher during the course. The NCAA reports that it approves very few online credit-recovery courses. The L.A. schools make sure that its NCAA students pass approved credit-recovery courses, so surely it and UC should be able to demand the same for all students.

That’s not to say school districts, including L.A. Unified, haven’t been making real efforts to improve the education of students who are in danger of leaving without a diploma. And when a student is missing just a class or two to graduate, an online course can be a legitimate and helpful way to make up the difference.

Yet, short of the flagrant manipulations in Washington, D.C., no one at the policy level seems to want to talk about, much less do anything about, the scammier aspects of rising graduation rates. This is education at its most basic: After our best efforts with transitional kindergarten, rejiggered school funding and parent-engagement programs, does a high-school diploma mean what it should in the end? Or are we simply allowing schools to define themselves out of a problem so they can look good on press releases and reports to the federal government?

In the end, if these students can’t hack college or apprenticeships or entry exams to be delivery drivers, the schools will have done them no favors.

Insisting on quality and rigor in education doesn’t give politicians any bragging rights; higher numbers do, even if they don’t mean much. I’m still waiting for the candidate who’s willing to survey teachers to see if they’re being pressured to pass kids, who insists on a stiff review of online credit recovery, and who calls foul on high graduation rates that are suspiciously out of whack with students’ test scores.

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator who has written extensively on education. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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